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Prophet Muhammad and the Middle Ages II

Pope Clement V (1305-14) declared that the Islamic presence on Christian soil was an insult to God. Christians had already begun to expunge this obscenity. In 1301 Charles of Anjou, King of France, exterminated the last Muslims of Sicily and southern Italy in the reservation of Lucera, which he had described as 'a nest of pestilence ... lurid in pollution ... the stubborn plague and filthy infection of Apulia'. (Quoted in Daniel, The Arabs and Medieval Europe, p. 156.) In 1492 the final Islamic stronghold in Europe was destroyed when Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada: all over Europe church bells pealed joyfully at the Christian victory over the infidel. A few years later Spanish Muslims were given the choice of deportation or conversion. Many preferred to leave Europe but same did convert to Christianity and they and their descendants were persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition for another 300 years. The spirit of the martyrs of Cordava had replaced the old tolerance, and Spanish Christians now seemed haunted by a fear of crypto-Muslims, living in their midst as the hidden enemies of society.


The unhealthy Western attitude to Islam was often revealed in a schizophrenic reaction. Thus the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II was an Islamophile who was genuinely more at home in the Muslim world than in Christian Europe, but at the same time he systematically killed and deported the Muslims from his native Sicily

The unhealthy Western attitude to Islam was often revealed in a schizophrenic reaction. Thus the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II was an Islamophile who was genuinely more at home in the Muslim world than in Christian Europe, but at the same time he systematically killed and deported the Muslims from his native Sicily. While Christians were butchering Muslims in the Near East, others were sitting at the feet of Muslim scholars in Spain. Christian, Jewish and Mozarabic scholars cooperated in a vast translation project, bringing the learning of the Islamic world to the West and restoring to Europe the classical and ancient wisdom that had been lost in the Dark Ages. The Muslim philosophers Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd were venerated as intellectual luminaries, though it became increasingly difficult for people to accommodate the fact that they were both Muslims. The problem was graphically shown in Dante's The Divine Comedy. Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd (known in Europe as Avicenna and Averroes) are in Limbo with the virtuous pagans who had founded the intellectual culture that they had helped the West to acquire: Euclid, Ptolemy, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Yet Muhammad himself is in the Eighth Circle of Hell, with the schismatics. He suffers a particularly disgusting punishment:

No cask stove in by cant or middle ever

So gaped as one I saw there, from the chin

Down to the fart-hole split as by a cleaver.

His tripes hung by his heels; the pluck and spleen

Showed with the liver and the sordid sack

That turns to dung the food it swallows in. (The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Cantica I: Hell, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers, London, 1949., Canto XXVIII: 22-7, p. 246)


In about 1120, when anti-Islamic hatred was at its height, William of Malmesbury was the first European to distinguish Islam from paganism: 'The Saracens and the Turks both worship God the Creator and venerate Muhammad not as God but as their prophet'

Dante still cannot allow Muhammad an independent religious vision. He is a mere schismatic, who had broken away from the parent faith. The scatalogical imagery reveals the disgust that Islam inspired in the Christian breast, but it also depicts the split in the Western psyche, which sees 'Islam' as an image of everything in itself which it cannot digest. The fear and hatred, which is a complete denial of the loving message of Jesus, also represents a deep wound in the integrity of Western Christianity.

But others were trying to achieve a more objective vision. At a time when Jews and Muslims were being fused in the Christian imagination as the common enemy of civilisation, it is interesting that one of the first positive portraits of Muhammad in the West comes from Peter Alfonsi, a Spanish Jew who had converted to Christianity in 1106 and then lived in England as the doctor of Henry I. He was hostile to Islam, but presents it as a choice that a person who was uncommitted to the 'true' faith might reasonably make. In about 1120, when anti-Islamic hatred was at its height, William of Malmesbury was the first European to distinguish Islam from paganism: 'The Saracens and the Turks both worship God the Creator and venerate Muhammad not as God but as their prophet.' It was an insight that many Westerners have been reluctant to accept: some people are still genuinely surprised to hear that Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians: they imagine that 'Allah' is an entirely different deity, like Jupiter in the Roman pantheon. Others tend to assume that 'Muhammadans' give the same kind of veneration to their Prophet as Christians to Christ.

The difficulty of separating fact from fiction is apparent in the History of Charlemagne by the Pseudo- Turpin, which was written some time before 1150. This romance depicts the idolatrous Saracens worshipping Mahomet alongside Apollo and Tervagant, in the usual manner of the chansons de gestes!. But in the middle of it all, there is a rational debate between Roland and the Muslim giant Ferracutus which recognises that the Muslims worship the one God. At about the same time, the chronicler Otto of Freising denied the myth of Muslim idolatry:


By the middle of the twelfth century,a more accurate view of Islam was beginning to be widespread, but this greater objectivity was not strong enough to oust the myths of hostility

It is known that the whole body of Saracens worship one God and receive the Old Testament law and the rite of circumcision. Nor do they attack Christ or the Apostles. In this one thing alone they are far from salvation - in denying that Jesus Christ is God or the Son of God, and in venerating the seducer Mahomet as a great prophet of the supreme God.(Chronicon, in ibid., p. 36.)

By the middle of the twelfth century, therefore, a more accurate view of Islam was beginning to be widespread, but this greater objectivity was not strong enough to oust the myths of hostility. Fact and fantasy lived quite happily side by side and, even when people were genuinely trying to be fair, the old hatred appears at some point. Muhammad is still the impostor and schismatic, even though Otto had a more rational view of his religion.

The most important of these twelfth-century attempts to find a more objective view of Islam was undertaken by Peter the Venerable, the humane Abbot of Cluny. In 1141 he had made a tour of the Benedictine monasteries in Christian Spain and commissioned a team of Christian and Muslim scholars, under the leadership of the Englishman Robert of Ketton, to translate some Islamic texts, a project that was completed in 1143. They produced the first Latin translation of the Qu'ran, a collection of Muslim legends, a Muslim history of the world, an explanation of Islamic teaching and a work of polemic called The Apology of al-Kindi. It was a remarkable feat; it gave people in the West the means to make a serious study of Islam for the first time. But it achieved little. By this period the Christians were beginning to suffer major military defeats in the Crusader states in the Near East. There was a new wave of anti Muslim feeling, orchestrated by Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux. It was not a good time to begin an objective study of the Qu'ran. Peter had written his own treatise, which addressed the Muslim world gently and with affection: 'I approach you, not as men of ten do, with arms but with words; not with force but with reason, not in hatred but in love .... I love you, loving you I write to you, writing to you I invite you to salvation.' (Quoted in Benjamin Kedar, Crusade and Mission: European approaches to the Muslims. Princeton, 1984., p99) But the tide of this treatise was Summary of the Whole Heresy of the Diabolic Sect of the Saracens. Few real Muslims, even if they were able to read the Abbot of Cluny's Latin text, would find such an approach sympathetic. Even the kindly Abbot, who demonstrated his opposition to the fanaticism of his time on other occasions, showed signs of the schizophrenic mentality of Europe vis-a-vis Islam. When King Louis VII of France led the Second Crusade to the Middle East in 1147, Peter wrote to him saying that he hoped he would kill as many Muslims as Moses (sic) and Joshua had killed Amorites and Canaanites. (Ibid, p. 101)

In the early thirteenth century, another saintly Christian made an attempt to reach out to the Muslim world in the context of a military crusade. During a lull in the disastrous Fifth Crusade (1218-19), Francis of Assisi appeared in the Christian camp in the Nile delta, crossed the enemy lines and asked to be taken to the Sultan al-Kamil. He is said to have spent three days with the Sultan, expounding the gospel message and urging al-Kamil to become a Christian. Because he did not insult the memory of the Prophet Muhammad, the Muslims were quite prepared to listen and seem to have been rather impressed by this ragged, dirty fellow. When he left, al-Kamil said: 'Pray for me, that God may deign to show me the law and the faith that are most pleasing to him.' He sent Francis back to the Christian camp 'with every mark of respect and in complete safety' .(Quoted in Regine Pernoud, The Crusaders, trans. Enid Grant. Edinburgh and London, 1963, p. 221.)


During the Middle Ages, even when people were trying to be fair and objective or approached the Muslim world with the Christian message, hostility erupted, sometimes in a particularly violent form. At the end of the thirteenth century, the Dominican scholar Riccoldo da Monte Croce travelled in Muslim countries and was impressed by the quality of the piety he saw: Muslims put Christians to shame, he wrote

But before Francis had set off to the East, he had despatched a party of his Friars Minor to preach to the Muslims in Spain and Africa, and they approached the Islamic world in a very different spirit. Arriving at Seville, they resorted to the techniques of the martyrs of Cordova. First they tried to break into the mosque during the Friday prayers, and when they were driven away they screamed abuse at the Prophet Muhammad outside the palace of the Amir. There was no reaching out to the Saracens with compassion and love during this first major missionary venture to Islam. The Franciscans were not interested in converting the Muslims, but wanted to use them to gain the crown of martyrdom. They became so vociferous that the authorities, who were highly embarrassed by the incident, were forced to imprison them, and to avoid publicity they moved them from one prison to another. They were reluctant to pass the death 'sentence, but the local Mozarab Christians feared that these fanatics might endanger their own position and they begged the authorities to get rid of them. Eventually the Franciscans were deported to Ceuta in Morocco, where they went straight to the mosque and yet again abused Muhammad as the people assembled for the Friday prayers. Finally the authorities were forced to execute them. When Francis heard this, he is believed to have exclaimed joyfully: 'Now I know that I have five Friars Minor.' (Ibid)

This attitude seems to have been characteristic of later Franciscan missions. In 1227 another group were executed at Ceuta; they had written home to say that the main object of their mission had been 'the death and damnation of the infidels'. (Kedar, Crusades and Mission, pp. 125-6.) Others went to the Holy Land. James of Vitry, the Bishop of Acre, who disapproved of their methods, explained:

The Saracens listen willingly to the Friars Minor when they speak of the faith of Christ and the teaching of the Gospels. But when their words openly contradict Muhammad, who appears in their sermons as a perfidious liar, they strike them without respect, and if God did not protect them marvellously, would almost murder them and drive them from their cities.(Quoted in Pernoud, The Crusaders, pp. 222-3.)

Thus during the Middle Ages, even when people were trying to be fair and objective or approached the Muslim world with the Christian message, hostility erupted, sometimes in a particularly violent form. At the end of the thirteenth century, the Dominican scholar Riccoldo da Monte Croce travelled in Muslim countries and was impressed by the quality of the piety he saw: Muslims put Christians to shame, he wrote. But when he returned home to write the Disputatio contra Saracmos et Alcharanum, he simply repeated the old myths. The Western image of Islam was beginning to acquire an authority that was stronger than any contact with real Muslims, however positive. During the age of the Crusades, the West found its soul. Most of our characteristic passions and enthusiasms can be traced back to that period. As Umberto Eco points out in his essay 'Dreaming of the Middle Ages':

In fact both Americans and Europeans are inheritors of the Western legacy, and all the problems of the Western world emerged in the Middle Ages: modern languages, merchant cities, capitalistic economy (along with banks, checks and prime rate) are inventions of medieval society. In the Middle Ages we witness the rise of modern armies, of the modern concept of the nation state, as well as the idea of a supernatural federation (under the banner of a German Emperor elected by a Diet that functioned like an electoral convention); the struggle between the poor and the rich, the concept of heresy or ideological deviation, even our contemporary notion of love as a devastating unhappy happiness. I could add the conflict between church and state, trade unions (albeit in a corporative mode), the technological transformation of labour. (Umberto Eco, ‘Dreaming of the Middle Ages’, Travels in Hyper Reality, trans. William Weaver., London, 1987, p. 64)

He could also have added: the problem of Islam. After the Middle Ages people in the West continued many of the old medieval mythologies. Many more attempts were made to gain a more positive and objective perspective, but alongside the growing scholarly consensus that 'Islam' and its Prophet were not the monstrous phenomena that people imagined, the traditional prejudice remained.

Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet
 

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