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Sons of IshmaelMuslims through European Eyes in the Middle Ages$

John V. Tolan

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780813032221

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813032221.001.0001

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(p.ix) Introduction

(p.ix) Introduction

Sons of Ishmael
University Press of Florida

The snows had been heavy in the Alps during the winter of 1215–16. That at least was what Jacques de Vitry thought as he prepared to ford a swollen river in the north of Italy in April 1216. Jacques was on his way to Rome, his mule loaded with two chests of personal effects, in particular books, in order to be ordained bishop of Acre, de facto capital of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem since the loss of the holy city to Saladin in 1187. Jacques, closely associated with the movements of intellectual and spiritual renewal in Flanders and Paris, was renowned as an ardent reformer and brilliant preacher; he had preached the crusade against the Cathar heretics of Languedoc and against the Muslims in order to recapture Jerusalem. Tireless advocate of ecclesiastical reform, enthralling orator, zealous proponent of crusade, he was a natural choice for the bishopric of Acre. Yet he had a formidable ad-versary—the devil. As Jacques explained in a letter to friends in Paris and Flanders:

As I entered Lombardy, the devil cast into a river my arms, that is to say my books, with which I had undertaken to combat him, along with other things necessary for my sustenance. He pulled them down into the deep and tempestuous torrents. Because of the melting snow, the river was unusually violent; it had swept away bridges and large stones. It carried off one of my chests, full of books. The other chest, in which the finger of my [spiritual] mother Marie ďoignies rested, held up my mule and prevented him from sinking. Against all odds, my mule, with the chest, arrived safely on the opposite bank. The other chest was miraculously found downstream, held back by the roots (p.x) of some trees. What was particularly miraculous was that, although the water darkened the pages of my books a bit, all of them remained perfectly legible.1

Jacques sees himself as a soldier of Christ, fighting with spiritual and intellectual weapons against the great Enemy, the devil, and all his minions, be they Cathar heretics, Muslims, or bad Christians. It is only natural that the devil should attack him and seek to disarm him. Jacques could count on the aid of God and his saints—in this instance, in particular of Marie ďOignies, the Beguine whom Jacques had served as confessor until her death in 1213 and whose Life Jacques subsequently wrote. Jacques carried her finger with him as a relic ever after; in the Holy Land, he would wear it, housed in a silver casket, on a chain around his neck.2 Here he credits it with saving him and his mule, buoying up the chest in which it rested and guiding the mule safely to the far bank of the river.

In this spiritual combat with the devil, Jacques's arms are his books. He deploys them in order to preach the crusade, to dispute with heretics in Milan or Acre, and to attempt to convert Muslims to Christianity. Jacques is also a forger of arms—author of letters, sermons, and chronicles. He is not the only medieval author to describe books and knowledge in military metaphors. Petrus Alfonsi, in his Dialogue against the Jews (1110), affirms to his Jewish adversary, “I desire greatly to slay you with your own sword”—the “sword” being the Torah, with which he hopes to prove the falsity of Judaism.3 In the same vein, Dominican Riccoldo da Montecroce, in his Against the Law of the Saracens (c. 1300), affirms that he can use the Qur'ân to con-found the “perfidious law of the Saracens,” just as David slew Goliath with the latter's own sword.4 Such imagery is not limited to interreligious polemics: Peter Abelard describes his rivalry with Parisian master William of Champeaux as a siege, and Bernard of Clairvaux presents his own confrontation with Abelard as that of a pious David against an intellectual Goliath.5 The very titles of medieval religious polemics, by Christians or by Muslims, evoke military struggle: the Pugio fidei (Dagger of the Faith) by Ramon Martí (1278), the Maqâmi' al-Sulbân fî-l-radd ‘abadat al-awthân (Bludgeons for the Suppression of Crosses in the Refutation of the Idolaters) by the Muslim al-Khazrajî (late 12th century)The Sharpened Sword: A Response to the Coran, by the Damascene Christian al-Mu'taman Ibn al-'Assal,6 Al-Sârim al-maslûl ‘alâ shâtim al-Rasûl (The Sword Unsheathed against He Who Insults the Messenger of God) by the Muslim Ibn Taymiyya (1293), etc.

(p.xi) Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are religions of the book, and it should perhaps not surprise us that medieval authors of the three faiths see books as both targets and weapons in interreligious conflict. Jacques de Vitry's Parisian education was very much an initiation into oral performance— intellectual disputes carried out before masters and students, or sermons preached before different audiences. Yet these highly structured oral performances were centered on the explication of texts: texts of logic, theology, and of course the Bible.

This book is an exploration of how various Christian European authors, from the ninth century to the fourteenth, direct their pens against Islam. In some cases, these medieval authors composed polemical treatises, designed to attack or refute the doctrines and practices of Islam, or apologetical treatises, seeking to defend Christianity against (real or potential) Muslim arguments; many treatises combine both polemical and apologetical elements. Such texts were only rarely addressed to readers of the rival faith: more commonly, they were meant to persuade vacillating Christians of the superiority of their religion to Islam, in order to prevent them from converting to Islam or in order to convince them of the justice and necessity of wars against Muslims.

Other texts analyzed in these pages are not polemical, but rather eschatological or historical. Their authors grapple with the challenge that the success of Islam posed to their Christian worldview. Ever since the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century, Christian authors had proclaimed that the new Christian Empire was destined to triumph over its heathen enemies. This vision was shaken by the invasions of Germanic and other “barbarian” peoples in the following centuries, but the conversion of many of the invaders to Christianity brought new hope. The Muslims, in contrast, conquered the wealthiest and most populous parts of the old Roman Empire, made them part of a rich and flourishing civilization, and gradually persuaded most descendants of the conquered inhabitants to convert to Islam. The challenge for many authors was to explain these tremendous changes in ways that would reassure Christians that God still preferred them and that He destined them for an ultimate triumph.

I have explored these issues in a previous book, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination, tracing the development of European images and perceptions of Islam through the first six Muslim centuries. The roots of these images are found in the defensive ruminations of Christian dhimmis, minorities whose rights to practice their religion were (p.xii) scrupulously guaranteed, but who were second-class citizens, subjects of a vigorous new Muslim empire. The earliest Christian authors to describe the Muslim conquest and dominion of the Christian Roman Empire reiterated the standard topoi used since the Hebrew prophets to explain their subjugation: the Muslim invader was a scourge sent by God to punish his wayward flock. As Christians got to know Islam better, and as they saw with growing alarm that their coreligionists were converting to Islam, they portrayed the rival faith as a Christological heresy, a worldly religion cleverly crafted by the cunning heresiarch Muhammad to dupe an uncouth and lascivious people into following him.

Far from these communities of dhimmis, Christians of northern Europe and of Byzantium imagined their Saracen enemies as idolaters who practiced the discredited and colorful rites of the ancient pagans, devoting sacrifices and prayers to a pantheon of idols that included Jupiter, Apollo, and their special god Muhammad. This image of Saracen idolatry provided a useful caricature with which the Christian author could justify and glorify war against Muslims. By creating a largely imaginary enemy outside the bounds of Christian Europe, the chansons de geste could revel in the knightly violence that was in reality more often directed at internal Christian enemies.

This caricature of Saracen paganism was untenable for those with even a rudimentary familiarity with Islam, many of whom portrayed Islam as a heresy—that is to say, as a deviant form of Christianity. For Guibert de Nogent, who in 1109 composed a chronicle of the first crusade, Muhammad was merely the latest and most nefarious of a long line of Oriental heresiarchs: the success of Islam was proof of the Oriental penchant for heresy, calling for the intervention of vigorous and stolid Latins. The image of Islam as heresy, forged by dhimmis in the Near East and Spain, came to northern Europe at a time when Latin Christians came into frequent contact with Muslims and when they were increasingly preoccupied with the supposedly nefarious influence of other non-Christians: Jews and heretics. The association between these various enemies of the faith is crucial for understanding the Christian perceptions of Muslims (or, for that matter, of Jews or heretics) in the following centuries. Petrus Alfonsi included an anti-Muslim chapter in his Dialogues against the Jews; Peter of Cluny composed a polemical triptych against Jews, Muslims, and Petrobrusian heretics; Alain de Lille wrote a treatise against Cathars, Waldensians, Jews, and Muslims.

The development of scholastic theology in the twelfth and thirteenth (p.xiii) centuries went hand in hand with the new forms of argumentation used against infidels. If Catholic doctrine was based on reason, it should be possible to prove it to Jews, heretics, and Muslims through logical exposition and argumentation. For various Christian writers, from Petrus Alfonsi to Roger Bacon and Ramon Llull, logical “necessary reasons” (rationes necessariae) could prove the faith to the infidel. Others did not go so far: Thomas Aquinas affirmed that the faith could be shown not to be contradicted by reason but could not be proven by rational arguments. Fellow Dominicans such as Ramon Martí and Riccoldo da Montecroce accordingly used rational argumentation and textual criticism to attack the beliefs, rites, and sacred writings of Jews, heretics, and Muslims but did not try to prove the articles of the Christian faith to them. By the fourteenth century, European Christian authors increasingly came to realize that these intellectual combats with Islam had failed as miserably as had their military struggles with Mamluks in the eastern Mediterranean and (increasingly) with the Ottomans in eastern Europe. In the following centuries, many Europeans would depend on the works of authors of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries for their knowledge (or at times disinformation) concerning Islam.

This book explores in greater depth some of the issues raised in Saracens. It brings together ten previously published essays. Christian polemics against Islam need to be understood in the broader context of interreligious polemics in the medieval Mediterranean world. The first chapters look in detail at specific themes in Christian anti-Muslim polemics. Embrico of Mainz's Life of Muhammad, in Latin verse, the object of chapter 1, depicts the prophet of Islam as a trickster and scoundrel, not an Antichrist but rather an anti-saint: an errant preacher who feigns holiness and performs bogus miracles through magic and sleight-of-hand, hoodwinking the gullible Arab masses into deeming him holy. Embrico's portrayal comes at a time when European contacts with Islam are on the rise, but also when churchmen feel threatened by wandering preachers closer to home, many of whom are denounced as charlatans or heretics. By portraying Muhammad in the familiar and despised role of mountebank preacher, Embrico seeks no doubt to kill two birds with one stone, discrediting both those who follow the prophet of Islam and those who follow itinerant visionaries closer to home.

Embrico's polemical biography concludes with a strange legend involving Muhammad's death and burial: God strikes Muhammad dead as punishment for his sins, and pigs begin to devour his corpse, the remains of (p.xiv) which are subsequently placed in an iron coffin, suspended in midair by magnets. This trick successfully convinces the gullible “Saracen” masses that Muhammad had been a holy man and prophet. Chapter 2 examines this story of Muhammad's death and burial along with similar accounts by other Christian authors, showing how, according to long established literary and hagiographic topoi, the supposed desecration of the corpse of an enemy is meant to show his disfavor in the eyes of God, while the bogus miracle of his floating tomb is meant to help explain why he is revered as a holy man.

Chapter 3 compares several accounts of Muhammad's life written in the Iberian peninsula during the second half of the thirteenth century by Ramon Martí, King Alfonso X of Castile and León, and Pedro Pascual. Earlier historians, notably Norman Daniel, had taken the latter two authors to task for indiscriminately mixing bona fide Muslim sources and scurrilous Christian legends to concoct strangely hybrid and derogatory accounts of Muhammad's life; for Daniel, this shows the authors' lack of critical acumen in distinguishing accurate from inaccurate information. My reading of these authors, on the contrary, sees them carefully constructing an image of the Muslim prophet which could be both recognizable in its partial accuracy and effective in denying legitimacy to Muhammad and his followers. Rather than presenting an inept hodge-podge, these authors forge clever and coherent—although inaccurate—polemics.

Peter the Venerable, abbot of the rich and powerful Burgundian monastery of Cluny, in the 1140s commissioned a team of scholars to translate the Qur'ân and other texts concerning Islam from Arabic into Latin. Robert of Ketton's translation of the Qur'ân became an essential tool for Europeans of the following five centuries who wished to study Islam. Yet, as chapter 4 shows, the goal of Peter of Cluny in commissioning these translations and in writing two texts about the “law of Muhammad,” was not the dispassion-ate study of a rival religion but the refutation of what he qualifies as the “diabolical heresy of the Saracens.” Peter's intellectual combat is all the more necessary because it comes at a time when Europeans have become painfully aware of the cultural and intellectual gap with the Arab world. Among other things, Peter hopes to show potential doubters among his Latin readers that Christianity is indeed the superior religion, despite the higher level of learning and wealth of the Muslim world.

The following chapters explore different ideological purposes of the portrayals—positive and negative—of Muslims. Why do medieval crusade epics and chronicles paint Muslim adversaries as pagan idolaters? Chapter 5 (p.xv) examines the legends surrounding Kurbqa, Atabeg of Mosul, whom the troops of the First Crusade routed outside of Antioch in June 1098. Western chroniclers present him as Corbaran, a pagan king who curses his idols for failing to secure victory for him. A thirteenth-century Chanson de Croisade (Crusading epic), the Chrétienté Corbaran, goes further: it has him convert to Christianity, destroy the idols he once worshiped, and fight his former suzerain, the “Caliph of Paganism.” At the end of the thirteenth century, in spite of the failure of the crusades, the anonymous poet dreams of converting a powerful enemy. History, it seems, repeats itself: Muslim rulers are cast in the familiar guise of pagan kings who (as potential new Constantines) might convert and come to the aid of an embattled Christendom.

Similar legends circulated regarding Salâh al-Dîn, better known in Europe as Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria who captured Jerusalem in 1187, to the great shock and consternation of Latin Europe. In the immediate aftermath of 1187, as we see in chapter 6, some Latin writers portrayed Saladin stereotypically as a cruel scourge, sent by God to punish Christian sins. Yet more often, over the course of the Middle Ages, European authors saw him as an embodiment of chivalric virtues, a model knight and a just prince. In the increasingly elaborate and colorful legends surrounding him, a tension develops between two tendencies: some writers present him as living proof that one need not be Christian or European to be a near-perfect knight and prince; others forge bogus genealogies that make him the direct descendant of French knights and affirm that he secretly converted to Christianity. In the latter cases, Saladin, like the legendary Corbaran, converted to Christianity, offers new and illusoryhope of a redoubtable Saracen enemy becoming a powerful ally.

In 1175 (as we shall see in chapter 7), Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa sent his chaplain Burchard of Strasbourg to Cairo and Damascus to negotiate an alliance with Saladin. We know nothing of the political negotiations that followed; we do know that twelve years later Saladin wrested Jerusalem from the Latins and that Frederick set out to fight him on the third crusade, dying on the way in 1190. But in 1175, Burchard was sent to negotiate peace; he subsequently wrote an account of his travels: how he sailed from Genoa to Alexandria, sailed up the Nile to Cairo, and crossed the desert to Damascus. He describes cities and countryside, the heat of the desert, crocodiles, the pyramids, the habits and dress of the locals. He makes note of numerous communities of Christians that thrive everywhere in the sultan's domains. He pays particular attention to the rites and practices of the “Saracens,” in (p.xvi) a manner remarkably free of polemical Christian prejudices. In particular, he narrates his pilgrimage to two holy sites devoted to the Virgin Mary: Matariyya, near Cairo, and Saydnâyâ, near Damascus. To each of these sanctuaries Christians and Muslims come to venerate the mother of Jesus. Burchard explains that Muslims believe that Mary was a holy virgin who miraculously gave birth to Jesus, a great prophet. This, he says, is why they show such devotion to her, and why they extend respect to Christians living throughout their land. And the Virgin rewards her devotees, both Christian and Muslim, by according them miracles, according to Burchard, for whom fundamental similarities between Muslims and Christians far outweigh their differences.

If Burchard testifies to what Maxime Rodinson has called “The Allure of Islam,” some medieval writers saw this allure as perilous. This problem presented itself forcefully in the thirteenth century to a number of Latin writers on Islam, as we shall see in chapter 8. Thirteenth-century mendicant missionaries deployed rationalistic arguments in an attempt to prove the irrationality of Islam. Yet at the same time the works of Muslim scientists and philosophers became an integral part of the curriculum of European universities. How could the authors of such sophisticated works of erudition adhere to the supposedly irrational teachings of Muhammad? The answer, given in various forms by different authors, particularly Ramon Martí, Roger Bacon, Ramon Llull, and Riccoldo da Montecroce, was that they did not. These authors claimed that learned Saracens did not in fact believe in the doctrines of the Qur'ân and that only fear of physical punishment made them publicly proclaim their adherence to Islam. All four Christian polemicists were well read in Arabic philosophy and based their claims on key texts, notably those involving the disputes between Avicenna, al-Ghazâlî, and Averroes. The philosophical and theological disagreements between Muslim thinkers are distorted to make them “proofs” of the “irrationality” of Islam.

Chapter 9 examines the anti-Muslim polemics of Pedro Pascual, bishop of Jaén, who was captured by Grenadine raiders and spent the rest of his life in a prison in Granada. There he composed his Sobre la seta Mahometana, a virulent polemical work meant to discourage his fellow Christian prisoners from apostatizing. Pedro Pascual read Arabic and was familiar with Qur'ân and Hadith and conversant with Muslim practice; he affirms that he had debated with Muslims on questions of the faith. Pedro deploys his knowledge of Islam selectively and strategically in his tract, seeking to instruct his (p.xvii) Christian readers in the art of defending their faith through argumentation. But perhaps more than anything else, Pedro in his desperation paints Islam as an irrational cult of violence and licentiousness, in order to instill in his readers a contempt for Islam sufficient to prevent them from crossing the line and converting.

Some polemicists tried to use basic cultural differences between Christians and Muslims as a wedge to drive between the two, to accentuate the “otherness” of the adherents of the rival faith. An example of this is seen in chapter 10, “A Dreadful Racket: The Clanging of Bells and the Yowling of Muezzins in Iberian Interconfessional Polemics.” Some Christian polemicists in ninth-century Muslim Spain depicted the muezzin's call for prayer as a diabolically inspired animalistic yelping; the same authors complained that Muslims mocked the sound of church bells. Both Muslim and Christian rulers at times restricted the rights of their minority subjects to ring bells or perform the call to prayer. Moreover, when conquering a rival city, one of the first symbolic acts of the victorious Christian ruler was often to transform the principal mosque into a church and hang bells in the minaret, while the victorious Muslims would transform the belfries into minarets and silence the bells.

In bringing together these essays, all of which were first published between 1996 and 2005 in journals or conference acts, I have added (mostly minor) corrections and revisions and have updated the bibliography. Six of the articles were originally published in French and one in Spanish; these appear for the first time in English.

These chapters were researched and written over the last decade; earlier forms of these chapters were presented to conferences and seminars from Cairo to Seattle. It would be a pleasure here to enumerate all the intellectual debts I have incurred in exchanges with colleagues whispered in the manuscript room of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, ruminated at breakfast in the Casa Velazquez in Madrid, argued over beer in Houston, discussed while exploring the crusader castle of Tripoli, or mused in a car between Hammamet and Sousse. I will resist the temptation to reproduce—and amplify—the long list of acknowledgments I produced in the beginning of Saracens, to colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic and all sides of the Mediterranean. The attentive reader will find my debt to many of them acknowledged in the endnotes in the pages that follow. (p.xviii)


(1.) Jacques de Vitry, Lettres, 1:34–46.

(2.) See Thomas of Cantimpré, Vita Sanctae Lutgardis virginis cistercensae; Supplementum ad vitam Sanctae Mariae Oigniacensis.

(3.) “Tuo namque ipsius gladio occidere te multum cupio.” Petrus Alfonsi, Diálogi contra Iudeos, 10; Dialogue against the Jews, 44.

(4.) “Insistendum est ad confutationem tam perfide legis, et ostendendum quod non sit lex Dei, et quod Saraceni tenentur recipere auctoritatem Euangelii et ueteris Testamenti. Hoc autem ostendere possumus per ipsum Alchoranum, ut Golias proprio gladio iuguletur.” Riccoldo da Montecroce, Libellus contra legem Saracenorum, ch. 2, p. 68.

(5.) Peter Abelard, Historia calamitatum, trans. B. Radice, in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, 61; Bernard of Clairvaux, Letters, 239 (to Pope Innocent II).

(6.) Mentioned by Ghâzi Ibn al-Wâsitî, Radd ‘alâ ahl al-dhimma wa man tabi’ahum; cited by Anne-Marie Eddé and Françoise Micheau, ĽOrient au temps des Croisades, 359.