Inter-cultural Transmission of Intellectual Traditions in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. A comparative perspective


Christian Sahner

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Christian Martyrdom in Early Islamic Society: Comparisons with Roman, Sasanian, and Shi‘i Models

Among the untapped sources for early Islamic history are a large number of Christian martyrologies written between the seventh and tenth centuries AD – in other words, accounts of Christians saints killed under Islam. There are around forty such vitae, ranging from around thirty pages to a few paragraphs in length. They survive in a constellation of medieval languages, including Arabic, Greek, Syriac, Latin, Georgian, Armenian, and Ethiopic. Among the most interesting questions to emerge from the sources is not per se what caused the persecution of Christians in Islamic lands. Rather, it is the manner in which Christians represented this persecution to posterity, and what this may mean for understanding their views of Islam, the past, and their place in the new religious cosmos. 

This article aims to compare how Christians in the early Islamic period understood martyrdom alongside past periods of Christian persecution. Did Islamic-era martyrologies draw on accounts of martyrdom under the Romans and the Sasanians? And how did Christian martyrologies from the early Islamic period compare to martyrologies produced by other “minority groups” in early Islamic society, such as the Shi‘a? In sum, the article hopes to explore how the concept of martyrdom changed during the transition from ancient to medieval and from Christian to Muslim in the Middle East. 

Christian Sahner is a historian of the Middle East. His work deals with the formation of Islamic civilization from late antiquity through the medieval period; relations among Muslims and Christians; and the politics of the modern Middle East.

He is spending the 2011-12 academic year at L'Institut francais du Proche-Orient in Beirut, Lebanon.

His dissertation is entitled, “Martydom, Memory, and the Creation of a Minority: Christian Saints in the Early Islamic World." It focuses on a collection of relatively unstudied Christian martyrologies produced between the 7th and 10th centuries in an array of medieval languages, including Arabic, Greek, Syriac, and Latin. The project explores the roots of sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims, as well as the manner in which Christians represented this violence to posterity.

A Rhodes Scholar, he earned an M.Phil with distinction in History and Arabic (Byzantine Studies) from Oxford in 2009, and an A.B. summa cum laude in Art & Archaeology, also from Princeton, in 2007.

He writes frequently on the history, culture, and politics of the Middle East for The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.