I have a friend, a husband and father of three, a Catholic who lives in Karachi, Pakistan. Since 2005, he has been harrassed, threatened, and physically assaulted by Muslim extremists. While I was working on my graduate degree in teaching in 2007, they demanded entry to his home, in which they brandished a gun and demanded he convert to Islam. A few months before I departed for my first tour in Afghanistan in 2010, they ambushed him under a bridge near his church, attacked him, and made his mouth bleed. In March 2018, while my family and I watched snow peacefully fall outside our Virginia home, they dragged him out of the motorized rickshaw he used to earn a living, beat him with a metal rod, and burned his vehicle. He and his family are still there, in Karachi, living a meager existence defined by poverty, hunger, and fear.
I met this man, Michael, while living abroad in Thailand a few years ago. He and his family had fled there, to Bangkok, seeking asylum and refugee status from the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner. Their application was rejected, as was the appeal. In August 2017, after Michael and his family had spent eight months in a Thai detention center, my wife and I, along with some gracious family members and friends, paid to have them flown back to Pakistan. It was upon his and his family’s own request that we did this, which, based on the description of their suffering in Karachi, provides the reader with an idea of how bad the Thai jail must have been.
I thought about Michael, as well as a number of other Christians persecuted by Muslims whom I’ve known in the past several years, while reading Christian C. Sahner’s Christian Martyrs Under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World. Sahner, a professor of Islamic history at Oxford, describes his goal as “provid[ing] the first comprehensive history of Christian martyrdom in the formative centuries after the rise of Islam.” He does this by studying Christian martyrs across the lands conquered by Islam at this time—from al-Andalus (Spain) to Persia. More broadly, Sahner also aims to study the effect of violence on Muslim-Christian relations and the process by which Christians came to view themselves “as a beleaguered minority” within dar-al-Islam, or the land of Islam. Though the author might be reticent to draw a direct line between historical Muslim violence against Christians and the persecution of my friend Michael, it’s hard not to see the parallels.
Christian Martyrs Under Islam provides an interesting and nuanced perspective on Muslim-Christian relations that is likely to surprise many readers, be they more sympathetic to the narrative of Christian persecution or Muslim tolerance. For example, Sahner seeks to create a middle ground between skeptical scholars who a priori reject hagiographic martyrdom accounts because of their often fantastical nature, and literal scholars who take everything in the narratives at face value. Rather, he sees them as most likely containing much historical truth, and that the more supernatural elements, even if false, can tell us much about the perspectives and objectives of the original authors and cultures. This is what he calls a “positivist” approach, gleaning fascinating details from hagiographic documents spanning a diversity of languages: Greek, Armenian, Georgian, and Syriac.
Moreover, contrary to many common conceptions of Islam, Sahner claims that it did not win converts primarily by the sword. Historical research suggests that capital punishment, though very real and very violent, was bureaucratic, followed established rules, and relied on state institutions. It was also, Sahner believes, somewhat more rare than we might imagine. Private, non state violence against Christians was even more uncommon in the centuries following the bloody conquest, as were forced conversions. Violence usually occurred in the context of a shared life between Muslims and Christians, rather than one of “constant hostility.” Muslim violence against Christians appears limited to two objectives: securing Muslim dominance over a religiously-mixed society, and countering a deep culture of “boundary-crossing.” Indeed, a major theme of the book is the “porosity” of the world Islam conquered, a paradigm Muslims sought to obstruct. Moreover, Sahner notes that many scholars believe that the Islamic heartlands of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria probably remained majority-Christian until the era of the Crusades.
So if violence was not the primary means of winning converts to Islam, how did the lands of the Middle East and North Africa become predominantly Muslim over the course of several centuries? The answers appears to be largely social and economic. Muslims levied heavy taxes on subject Christian populations. Harassment of Christians was also common. Muslim armies procured many slaves as they conquered the Mediterranean world—these people had little to lose, and possibly much to gain by converting to Islam. Laws regarding marriage also favored Islam: a Muslim man could marry a Christian woman, but a Christian man was prohibited from marrying a Muslim woman. Alternatively, if a husband converted to Islam, the children would be raised Muslim, which “spelled the disappearance of Christianity from the family tree in the long term, probably within a generation or two.” It was also relatively easy to convert to Islam, while the process for adult converts to Christianity was longer and involved more rites and rituals. Though it was easy to join Islam, it “became exceptionally hard to leave it,” in large part because of Quranic injunctions against apostasy. A consensus soon emerged in Islam that apostasy should be punished by death, effectively making Islam a “religious Hotel California”—“plenty of room inside, but once you checked in, there was no checking out.”
Yet, as Sahner’s scholarship shows, a small minority of Muslims did indeed apostatize, either returning to the Christianity of their earlier days, or embracing it for the first time. This occurred in just about every part of the caliphate where Muslims lived with Christian minorities. Alternatively, blasphemy developed as a form of Christian protest against the Islamization and Arabization of their society. In either case, martyrdom was the response. A handful of times Christians sought to mobilize and defend themselves or overthrow their Muslim overlords, though these efforts lacked any broad coordination or widespread support, and soon failed. Thus by the tenth century Christians seemed to have largely accepted their lot as an oppressed, marginalized minority in their homeland. From this time moving forward, there are less hagiographies in the historical record. This is an indication, Sahner suggests, of a stabilizing of Christian-Muslim relations, and perhaps also a concern that such martyrdom stories would only re-aggravate religious tensions.
A millennium later, we are witnessing a renewed spike in Muslim violence against Christian minority communities. Egypt’s Coptic community lives in a perpetual state of fear of violence from Muslim extremists—they added seven new martyrs in November when militants affiliated with ISIS attacked a bus of Coptic pilgrims. Iraq’s ancient Christian community has been hemorrhaging ever since persecution intensified following the 2003 U.S. invasion—it has dropped from approximately 1.5 million in 2003 to about 250,000 in 2018. Christians in Pakistan, suffering under the country’s egregiously obscene blasphemy laws, are constantly harassed, assaulted, and killed. Some estimate more than 10,000 Pakistani Christians are currently living in Thailand as asylum seekers or refugees.
Sahner’s research demonstrates that Christian martyrdom may be more complex than we tend to think, with far fewer conversions made at the tip of a sword. Moreover, Christians are not unique in having martyrdom stories and hagiographies—Shia Muslims also have a long history of such narratives. Yet whatever the value of these nuances, they cannot detract from the truth that Christians have been suffering under Islam ever since it began its long historical ascent in the deserts of Arabia. These problems, especially acute in the eighth century, are once more so in the twenty-first. If one looks at a map of the world where apostasy laws are in effect, it largely matches where Islam is the dominant religion. It’s also a crime in most of these countries to proselytize in the name of Christ. It’s still true, as Sahner notes about the early post-conquest period of Muslim-dominated areas, that when there is violence in these areas, it “almost always [goes] in one direction: from Muslims to Christians.”
The Muslim deck has always been stacked against Christians, from the jizya tax to marriage laws, and from conversion laws to blasphemy laws. This is increasingly the case even in the West. Dario Fernandez-Morera—author of the widely-hailed book The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise—has intimated that it is difficult for scholars of Islam to engage in open inquiry of Islamic thought and history. Many Islamic studies departments receive significant funding from Gulf donors—Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown, among others, have all received funds from Saudi Arabia. Fernandez-Morera’s book, referenced above, and written by a well-known academic scholar, was published by ISI Books. Another recently published book, a Christian companion for the study of Islam, written by David Pinault, a well-respected scholar of Islam and professor at Santa Clara University, was published by the Catholic publisher Ignatius Press. Why are respected scholars publishing such important works with smaller publishing houses, if not because of the academy’s unwillingness to criticize Islam? Even Sahner notes that, quite bizarrely, there is no book-length treatment of the history of blasphemy in Islamic law and thought.
Christianity’s survival in dar-al-Islam remains in jeopardy, and we would be foolish to ignore this or hope Muslim nations will willingly subject themselves to the same sort of humblings and compromises that Christianity has endured in the public square over the last couple of centuries. There are some Muslims who are willing to subject their religious faith to the gods of secular progressivism, but it seems more likely liberalism will submit to Islam. As Michael’s story makes painfully clear, being a Christian in a Muslim-majority land is a dangerous business, with few, if any, penalties, for Muslim governments that either endorse or ignore the persecution of Christian minorities. For his sake and the sake of his family, who may very well be future Christian martyrs, it would be nice if the powers that be in the West were to realize this, too.
Editor’s note: Pictured above, mourners pray next to coffins of the victims of a terrorist bomb blast at the Coptic Christian Saint Mark’s church in Alexandria the previous day during a funeral procession at the Monastery of Marmina in the city of Borg El-Arab, east of Alexandria on April 10, 2017. (Photo credit: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)