- Between Christ and Caliph: Law, Marriage, and Christian Community in Early Islam by Lev E. Weitz
Lev Weitz’s Between Christ and Caliph: Law, Marriage, and Christian Community in Early Islam presents an important and timely social history of Christianity in the Middle East during the early Abbasid Caliphate. In an ambitious feat of synthesis, Weitz introduces the oft-neglected Christian historiography of Syriac Christian communities into academic discourses on Middle Eastern law, culture, society, politics, and history. This dense, meticulous, and well-thought-out monograph is one of a series of recent books that highlight the roles Christians played in the development of a “multi-religious [End Page 243] social order” that made up the early Abbasid Caliphate (2). In this new social order, Christian religious elites, Weitz argues, created a new sense of communal identity by taking control of the Christian household—marriage and inheritance—by constructing a legal framework that would preserve Christianity from deterioration. Weitz further explores what the Middle East looks like when Christians are included in its story, and what role the household serves in shaping it.
Part I, “Empire, Household, and Christian Community from Late Antiquity to the Abbasid Caliphate,” explains that East Syriac jurist-bishops began to focus their interest on the households of lay communities living under Islamic rule. The jurist-bishops’ new-found civil-judicial legal authority came as a result of Caliphal policies permitting Christians to create laws pertaining to their own communities. Thus, the jurist-bishops used their authority to regulate Christian lay households, signaling a shift from a theological focus on sexual purity that colored their predecessors’ agendas to a practical focus on family life in the living rooms of everyday Christian lay-households. By household, Weitz means the marriages and inheritances by which the transfer of property and social status are transmitted, not necessarily their everyday behaviors as the term might connote. For the jurist-bishops, jurisdiction over the household was an attempt to retain property and religious status within patrilineal lines: males inherited real property and their children, their religious status. In this way, they attempted to preserve Christian communal identity through a patrilineal social organization that could be threatened by intermarriage or illegal marriages. In part II, Weitz considers this issue of intermarriage, arguing that bishops discouraged Christian men and women from marrying outside of their religion, marking a sharp contrast to the previous precedents which permitted it on grounds that it was a good witness to Christ. For the jurist-bishops, taking control of the Christian household provided them a legal cornerstone in which future generations could—and would for many hundreds of years—preserve their East Syriac identity “as a discrete social body—as one coherent religious community among the many” living during the Abbasid Caliphate (86). Lastly, these East Syriac jurist-bishops were instruments not only in creating their own communal law and practice within the Islamic Caliphate, but were responsible for defining the social and legal scaffolding of the medieval institution of the Caliphate itself.
In part II, “Christian Family Law in the Making of the Caliphal Society and Intellectual Culture,” Weitz offers an explanation of how Christian bishops reoriented their communities in relationship to pre-Islamic and Islamic models of power, especially as it relates to Christian marriage and divorce practices. Bishops from the East Syriac community, he argues, drew upon pre-Islamic and Iranian customs when conceiving of the terms of a legal marriage or divorce. For example, the bishops integrated the common Middle Eastern cultural practice of a two-step “inchoate” marriage process in which a betrothal period is followed by sexual consummation, showing continuity with Babylonian, Assyrian, and biblical precedents. In other ways, the bishops instituted new rules for marriage: the requisite of a priestly blessing and the [End Page 244] making of the sign of the cross over the couple, as well as the consent of an individual and/or the spouse’s parents. The combination of these elements, Weitz argues, is a mechanism bishops used to...