It seems fitting to mark my return to cyberspace with a solid book that was published earlier this year by Chicago Press, Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism. Adam Becker, whose first monograph was concerned with the earlier history of Syriac Christianity (Fear of God and the Beginning of Wisdom: The School of Nisibis and the Development of Scholastic Culture in Late Antique Mesopotamia, 2006), now very convincingly has proven himself as a scholar of religion of the modern period. With this well-researched volume, based largely on primary sources in modern Aramaic that few people have cared to explore, he paints a detailed picture of the activities of the Protestant missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and the way their ideas were received by local Christians of the Church of the East, today known mostly as Assyrians. According to Becker, the most salient feature of the reception of Evangelical Protestant ideas was not a clamor for literacy or the birth of a Protestant church (both certainly to be counted among the consequences of missionary input), but the changing ideas about community and self, forming the basis upon which Assyrian nationalism could grow and flourish in later periods.
In one go, Becker provides us with a must-read for those who are interested in mission history (in the Middle East or elsewhere), for those probing the connections between religion, nationalism and modernity, and, last but certainly not least, for those who work in Syriac studies and recent Assyrian history. Rephrasing this last sentence, one could also say that Becker’s careful analysis of the encounter between mostly American missionaries and the Assyrian Christians of the Urmia region in northwest Iran works extremely well to introduce a number of the key issues that have boggled the minds of those trying to understand the monumental changes of the nineteenth century as to religion, community and nation. By connecting the story of this mission and this community with wider debates on the relationship between religious change and the changes of the last two-three centuries (think Charles Taylor, Saba Mahmood, Peter van der Veer, Talal Asad, Webb Keane – to name but a few of those featuring in its pages), Becker makes clear how the history of a group with little political clout is intimately connected to that of the rest of the world. In this way, the story of the Syriac Christians of Urmia and beyond, of the genesis of their Assyrian identity, of their search for religious, social and political unity, and of their troubles and tribulations in the nineteenth century and later, is integrated in a larger history of religion and nationalism. And sure, for those from Syriac studies more generally, for them too there is a lot to enjoy– if only to be able to follow closely how Becker tracks the permutations of earlier Syriac concepts into ideas that work in the modern world.
To end on a personal note: it has been a somewhat confusing and oftentimes humbling experience to read a work that in sources, set-up and argument is so close to and often dependent on what I wrote earlier (with all the references in place). I would have liked to write something like this, but after reading the pre-final version, I was convinced that Becker’s contribution entailed everything I would have liked to say, as well as much more.