“The Monasticism of My Community is Jihad”: A Debate on Asceticism, Sex, and Warfare in Early Islam

In: Arabica
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  • 1 St John’s College, University of Cambridge

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This article explores Muslim attitudes towards asceticism in the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries by examining the famous Prophetic hadith: “Every community has its monasticism, and the monasticism of my community is ǧihād.” The hadith serves as a lens for assessing several broader phenomena, including early Muslim views of Christian monasticism, the rejection of celibacy in Islamic culture, and the promotion of a new code of sexual ethics in the post-conquest Middle East—what this article terms the “second sexual revolution of Late Antiquity.” It concludes by presenting several accounts of Christian monks who converted to Islam and joined the ǧihād, as well as Muslim soldiers who converted to Christianity and became monks.

Cet article analyse les attitudes des musulmans vis-à-vis de l’ascétisme aux deuxième/huitième et troisième/neuvième siècles en examinant le fameux hadith du Prophète : « Chaque communauté a sa forme de monachisme et le monachisme de ma communauté est le ǧihād ». Le hadith sert comme fenêtre pour évaluer plusieurs phénomènes plus larges, dont les points de vue des premiers musulmans sur le monachisme chrétien, le rejet du célibat dans la culture islamique et la promotion d’un nouveau code d’éthique sexuelle dans le Moyen Orient après la conquête – ce que cet article désigne par l’expression « seconde révolution sexuelle de l’Antiquité tardive ». Il conclut en présentant plusieurs récits de moines chrétiens qui se convertirent à l’islam et pratiquèrent le ǧihād, ainsi que des soldats musulmans qui se convertirent au christianisme et devinrent moines.

This article is in English.

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  • 22

    Shlomo Pines, “The Iranian Name for Christians and the ‘God Fearers’”, Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 2 (1968), p. 143-152; which discuss the relationship between the Middle Persian tarsāg, “fearer, Christian,” and the Arabic rāhib, “fearer, monk.” The article is thought-provoking, but the proposed transmission via Middle Persian is circuitous and historically dubious. Why would pre-Islamic Arabs have looked to Zoroastrian Persian-speakers to describe a phenomenon which existed all around them in Late Antiquity? Cf. Theodor Nöldeke, “Review of Friedrich Schulthess, Homonyme Wurzeln im Syrischen. Ein Beitrag zur semitischen Lexicographie. Berlin, 1900”, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 54 (1900), p. 163. For general discussion of the etymology, see Holger Michael Zellentin, The Qurʾān’s Legal Culture: The Didascalia Apostolorum as a Point of Departure, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2013, p. 222-228.

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    Cited in al-Zabīdī, Tāǧ al-ʿarūs, vi, p. 491.

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  • 66

    On this point, see esp. Melchert, “Muslim Renunciants and Christian Monks,” p. 142. Although rejection of rahbāniyya was widespread in early Islam, some Sufi writers treated it more ambivalently; e.g. al-Muḥāsibī (d. 243/857), al-Riʿāya li-ḥuqūq Allāh, ed. Margaret Smith, London, E.J.W. Gibb Memorial Trust-Messrs Luzac & Co. (“E.J.W. Gibb memorial series. New series”, 15), 1940, p. 4-5; and Ǧunayd (d. 298/910), Kitāb Dawāʾ al-arwāḥ in Arthur John Arberry, “The Book of the Cure of Souls”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2 (1937), p. 225, 231; I thank John Zaleski for these references.

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  • 71

    Knysh, Islamic Mysticism, p. 18-26.

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    Lev Weitz, “Polygyny and East Syrian Law: Local Practices and Ecclesiastical Tradition”, in The Late Antique World of Early Islam: Muslims among Christians and Jews in the East Mediterranean, ed. Robert G. Hoyland, Princeton, The Darwin Press (“Studies in late antiquity and early Islam”, 25), 2015, p. 157-191; cf. Payne, A State of Mixture, p. 108-117.

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  • 76

    Wael Hallaq, Sharīʿa: Theory, Practice, Transformations, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 271-280; on women, sex, and marriage in early Islam, see Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, New Haven-London, Yale University Press, 1992, p. 41-63; Kecia Ali, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, Cambridge-London, Harvard University Press, 2010; id., Sexual Ethics and Islam, Oxford, Oneworld, 2006.

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  • 77

    Ibn Isḥāq, Life of Muhammad, p. 792-798. In this context, we can begin to understand why some Christian polemicists took issue with the Prophet’s alleged “carnality”; e.g. the famous Zayd-Zaynab incident (see Kor 33, 37), mentioned by John of Damascus (d. 749 ce): Gk text in Daniel J. Sahas, John of Damascus on Islam, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1972, p. 138; and Eulogius of Córdoba (d. 859 ce): Juan Gil (ed.), Corpus scriptorum Muzarabicorum, Madrid, Instituto Antonio de Nebrija (“Manuales y anejos de ‘Emerita’”, 28), 1973, ii, p. 398; cf. David Stephan Powers, Zayd, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press (“Divinations”), 2014, p. 30-48.

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  • 81

    ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Muṣannaf, vi, p. 171, no 10387; here, the Prophet meets a celibate Muslim named ʿAkkāf b. Bišr al-Tamīmī. When the Prophet discovers that ʿAkkāf has neither a wife nor a concubine, he proclaims: “You are among the children of the devils! If you were a Christian, you would be one of their monks! Verily, marriage is part of our sunna!”.

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  • 88

    Cyril of Scythopolis, Lives of the Monks of Palestine, p. 101. The emperor Valens tried to conscript monks into the Roman army in 375 ce: Noel Lenski, “Valens and the Monks: Cudgeling and Conscription as a Means of Social Control”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 58 (2004), p. 93-117. After Sabas’ time, Gregory the Great protested an order of the emperor Maurice (r. 582-602 ce) forbidding able-bodied men from joining monasteries while Rome was at war with Persia: Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000, Malden, Blackwell (“The making of Europe”), 2003, p. 224-225.

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  • 89

    Terence G. Kardong (transl.), Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary, Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 1996, p. 3; cf. Tim Vivian, Kim Vivian and Jeffrey Burton Russell (transl.), The Life of the Jura Fathers, Kalamazoo, Cistercian Publications (“Cistercian studies series”, 178), 1999, p. 101; John Cassian, The Institutes, transl. Boniface Ramsey, New York, Newman Press (“Ancient Christian writers”, 58), 2000, p. 38, 129, 220-221, 243.

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  • 91

    Sizgorich, Violence and Belief, p. 144-167.

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    These anecdotes are cited in Tor, Violent Order, p. 53-62; also Bonner, Aristocratic Violence, p. 119-125; Sizgorich, Violence and Belief, p. 180-186. On naṣīḥa, or “advice,” especially challenging advice given to a ruler, see Claude Gilliot, “In consilium tuum deduces me: le genre du « conseil », naṣīḥa, waṣiyya dans la littérature arabo-musulmane”, Arabica, 54 (2007), p. 467-499.

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  • 97

    Paul L. Heck, “Sufism—What Is It Exactly?”, Religion Compass, 1/1 (2007), p. 152.

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    Cited in Andrae, In the Garden of Myrtles, p. 46.

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    Salem, Emergence of Early Sufi Piety, p. 87, citing Hurvitz, “Biographies and Mild Asceticism.”

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  • 105

    Syriac text and translation in Tannous, “Syria between Byzantium and Islam,” p. 543-544 n. 1310; cf. Penn, Envisioning Islam, p. 146.

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  • 106

    Wadad al-Qadi, “Non-Muslims in the Muslim Conquest Army in Early Islam”, in Christians and Others in the Umayyad State, eds Antoine Borrut and Fred M. Donner, Chicago, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (“Late antique and medieval Islamic Near East”, 1), 2016, p. 83-128.

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  • 111

    Sidney H. Griffith, “The Arabic Account of ʿAbd al-Masīḥ al-Naǧrānī al-Ghassānī”, Le Muséon, 98 (1985), esp. p. 362 (conversion to Islam and raiding); for commentary, see Sahner, Christian Martyrs under Islam, chapter 1; on the theme of ǧihād in this and the following text, see Thomas Sizgorich, “Mind the Gap: Accidental Conversion and the Hagiographic Imaginary in the First Centuries A.H.”, in Conversion in Late Antiquity: Christianity, Islam, and Beyond: Papers from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar, University of Oxford, 2009-2010, eds Arietta Papaconstantinou, with Neil McLynn and Daniel Louis Schwartz, Burlington, Ashgate, 2015, p. 169-170.

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  • 113

    Ignace Dick, “La passion arabe de S. Antoine Ruwaḥ néo-martyr de Damas († 25 déc. 799)”, Le Muséon, 74 (1961), esp. p. 126 (raiding against the Byzantines); for commentary, see Sahner, Christian Martyrs under Islam, chapter 3.

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