The End of Late Antiquity & Thomas Sizgorich

My colleague Thomas Sizgorich passed away this past Thursday due to a stroke. He was one of the most interesting scholars of the field of late antiquity that I knew of. He was able to look to the Mediterranean and the Near Eastern world with the same competency and ask really interesting questions which I never thought of. We were planning to make UC Irvine one of the centers of late antique studies in the US, where he taught late Roman history, Islamic history, Arabic and Syriac and I taught Sasanian history, Medieval Iran, Middle Persian and Persian. However, this dream of mine came to an abrupt end when I received a call on Thursday that he was leaving this earth and rushed to hospital to say farewell. Tom is gone, but his work remains and can be a guiding light for others. During his brief career he published a book and several very important articles which I want to briefly touch upon in this shore note.

His book entitled: Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, covers the idea of militant piety as it applied to both Christian and Muslim communities and how communal identities were formed through such narratives. He uses John of Chrysostom as an example for the Christians creating communal boundaries against others. Chrysostom’s dictums made sure that Christians watch over each other, as Ahmad Ibn Hanbal created boundaries for the Muslims so that there would be no communal transgression in the early Islamic period. Sizgorich studies how identities were produced or constructed in late antiquity among these two religious communities and how religious and spiritual violence played out among them. He first focuses on ascetic Christians who emerged as representatives of violence and defenders of communal boundaries. He then looks as the early Islamic world and the concept of Jihād and Islamic ascetic militancy.

In the post Constantine period, some Christians figures created communal boundaries for the community which then put them at odds with other religious groups. These Christians used a variety of traditions or narratives not solely based on the Bible, but also the local traditions as well as the Pagan Roman tradition. Emperor Theodosius attempted to curb the violence by these Christian ascetics in his empire. The violence was against non-Christians and went against imperial views of even the emperor Theodosius, but espoused by zealot monks in Syria and the Levant. Sizgorich concludes that the violence and fear was imposed not because of intolerance, but rather the perceived danger of erosion of communal boundaries.

Sizgorich then turns to the narratives of the Islamic world and deals with militant piety in the early Islamic tradition where he concludes that these narratives brought with it a deadly surplus, namely violence. The Khawārij (militant pious Muslims) are the example of militant piety which stands out in the early Islamic history. Sizgorich believes that the actions of the Khawārij fit into the larger pattern of late antique world, as pious enunciators who desired martyrdom. This violence was both against non-Muslims and those Muslims who did not behave according to the early Islamic narratives that these pious believed in. He suggests that what we have in late antiquity is both Christian and Muslim narratives feeding from one another’s tradition, and interacting with each other. Consequently, fear and violence was invoked by those militant ascetics to curb interaction, to keep their community isolated and pure, as they had perceived it by using their narratives of their own tradition.

This important study made me also think of the use of violence in late antique Iran, specifically in the Mazdean tradition. Not only prohibiting those of the “good religion” (weh-dēnān) from interacting with others, but conversion to Christianity in the late Sasanian, and to Islam in the post-Sasanian period brought a sense of anxiety. The other problem in both periods for Mazdaism was heresy, which in Middle Persian has a plethora terminology (ahlomōγīh, dušwurrōyišnīh, judristagīh, zandīgīh and agdēnīh), Mazdak being the chief zandīg who in the Pahlavi texts is often remembered as the “chief heretic” (ahlomōγān ahlomōγ).

All of this of course brings to mind the perceived danger of communal erosion of communal boundaries for Mazdaism which was under assault from within and from without. It is noteworthy to mention that it appears that the state during the Sasanian period attempted to also maintain communal boundaries and only resorted to violence when one communal group infringed on the rights of the other. Later Pahlavi Rivayats also emphasize the protection of communal boundary through violence through the dictum that if anyone leaves Mazdaism is worthy of death (marg-arzan).

خدا بیامرزدش

Some of his articles included:

‘“Do Prophets Come with a Sword?’ Conquest, Empire and Historical
Narrative in the Early Islamic World,” American Historical Review 112.4
(2007): 993-1015.

“‘Not Easily Were Stones Joined By the Strongest Bonds Pulled Asunder’:
Religious Violence and Imperial Order in the Later Roman World” Journal of
Early Christian Studies
15.1 (2007): 75-101.

“Reasoned Violence and Shifty Frontiers: Shared Victory in the Late
Roman East, in H.A. Drake, (ed.), Violence in Late Antiquity: Perceptions
and Practices
(Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 165-74.

“Narrative and Community in Islamic Late Antiquity,” Past & Present 185
(Nov. 2004): 9-42.