We have a fresh opportunity to reflect on Muslims through European Eyes in the Middle Ages. At this point professor John Tolan isn’t going to speak about his views on Muslims but he also speaks on the interactions of the Muslim and Christian worlds in the Middle Ages.
professor John Tolan
He's currently Professor of History at the University of Nantes and director of a major European research program, "RELMIN: The legal status of religious minorities in the Euro-Mediterranean world (5th-15th centuries)"
He has taught and lectured in universities in North America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
He works on the history of the rich web of relations in the medieval Mediterranean world, between Jews, Christians and Muslims.
In 2013, he was elected member of the Academia Europaea.
Petrus Alfonsi and his Medieval Readers (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993)
Les Relations entre les pays d'Islam et le monde latin du milieu du Xème siècle au milieu du XIIIème siècle (Paris: Bréal, 2000)
Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002)
Sons of Ishmael: Muslims through European Eyes in the Middle Ages (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008)
Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009; French edition published in Paris: Seuil, 2007).
Sons of Ishmael: Muslims through European Eyes in the Middle AgesApr 15, 2013
Europe and the Islamic World: A HistoryNov 17, 2015
Q: First of all what made you take up the interactions of the Muslim and Christian worlds in the Middle Ages?
JT: Islamophobia is rife in Europe and North America. At the same time, not a few Muslims have strong prejudices against Westerners. How to combat these prejudices? A large part of the answer, of course, involves attempting to combat current injustices and to educate people about other religions and cultures.
But also part of the answer, to my eyes, is to understand the history of these mutual perceptions. It seemed important to me to study how Christian writers of the Middle Ages understood Islam: both those Christians living under Muslim rule and those who lived in Christian Europe.
Q: I wonder what made you focus on Muslims through European Eyes in the Middle Ages.
JT: My 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 my book are not polemical, but rather eschatological or historical. Their authors grapple with the challenge that the success of Islam posed to their Christian world view. 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 of 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.
Q: What about the art of hostile biography: portraying Muhammad in thirteenth-century?
JT: I decided to compare 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. These writers carefully constructed 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—though inaccurate—polemics, portraying the prophet as a trickster and heretic. In other words, people who should know better will not hesitate to lambast a rival faith if it serves their own short-term interests.
What about a team of translators assembled by Peter of Cluny and a full, annotated Latin version of the Qurʾan?
JT: Peter was abbot of Cluny, in Burgundy (France), which at the time was the richest and most influential monastery in Europe. In 1142, he was traveling in Spain and he met Robert of Ketton, an Englishman who had come to Spain (as did many young Europeans) to learn Arabic and to study science (in Robert’s case, especially astronomy). He paid Robert to make a complete translation of the Qur’an into Latin—the first complete translation into any language. Peter then composed a brief polemical tract in which he attempted to refute what he saw as the errors of the “heretical Saracens”.
Q: In the second chapter, ‘A Mangled Corpse: The Polemical Dismemberment of Muhammad’, is about a legend from the twelfth century, which depicts a strange image of Muhammad’s death and what occurred to his corpse. This legend inflamed the imaginations of many Christian biographers of Muhammad, although this story was later rejected by Edward Gibbon in 1776 I wonder who else rejected on this image too.
JT: According to this legend, the prophet was buried in an iron coffin which was placed in a temple, in Mecca, that had magnets in the ceiling. Hence the coffin floated in mid-air and the “Saracens” (Arabs) believed it was a miracle. This and other legends involving false miracles and magical tricks circulated about the prophet. Christians who knew anything about Islam, of course, scoffed at these legends. Henry Stubbe, writing in the 17th century, says that Muslims laugh at Christians who relate such ridiculous stories.
Q: Could you elaborate on Saladin in the medieval European imagination?
JT: From the Middle Ages to today, many legends have circulated in Europe 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, 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. This idealized Arab ruler was contrasted to the corrupt and grasping kings of Christian Europe.
For Voltaire, Saladin "never persecuted anyone for his religion: he was at the same time conqueror, humane, and a philosopher." Treating captives mercifully, distributing alms to the poor (be they Christian, Jewish, or Muslim), allowing all to worship in their holy places, signing and faithfully keeping peace treaties that his Christian adversaries were to break, he is, for Voltaire, a model of an enlightened monarch. "Few of our princes," he says, "displayed such magnificence."
Q: I want to know how you see Saracen philosophers secretly deride Islam.
JT: Islam was often considered dangerous to Christian Europeans precisely because they realized how appealing it could be. The sophisticated literary culture of Arabs, the rich opulent material culture of the East, and the simple monotheism taught by the Qur’an, it was feared, could “seduce” Christian Europeans. This is particularly the case in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when Europeans discovered the intellectual riches of Arabic science and philosophy and translated many of their works into Latin and other European languages.
Thirteenth-century Christian 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, 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. Some of these Christian polemicists were well-read in Arabic philosophy and base their claims on their readings of 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.
Q: How do you find Walls of hatred and contempt: the anti-Muslim polemics?
JT: Pedro Pascual, Bishop of Jaén in Spain, 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 (On the Muhammadan Sect), 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 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 sufficient contempt for Islam as to prevent them from crossing the line and converting.
Pedro is to me an important example because he shows how hostility towards Islam was not necessarily a product of ignorance: he knew quite a bit about Islam. Nor was it necessarily derived from an “Orientalist” urge to dominate and colonize Muslim lands: on the contrary, Pedro was captured and dominated. On the contrary, it often comes from a sense of vulnerability, a need to protect one’s own Christian identity by rejecting the claims of Islam.
Q: You focus on the history of conflict and convergence between Latin Christendom and the Arab Muslim world during this period, I wonder how you like convergence between Latin Christendom and the Arab Muslim world.
JT: While some would have us believe that the relations between Europe and the Muslim world can be summed up as a perpetual “Clash of civilizations”, in fact there is at least as much convergence as conflict. Judaism, Christianity and Islam spring from the same fount of Near-eastern monotheism, and have much in common despite disagreements. The three civilizations that shared the Mediterranean basin in the Middle Ages, the Arab world, Byzantium and Latin Europe, all were profoundly influenced by the ancient civilizations of Persia, Greece and Rome. Trade in the Mediterranean was active, and had a profound influence on what people ate, how they dressed, what pottery they used, what books they read, how they thought and lived.
Q: In your opinion, Do you believe that European Eyes will be changed on Sons of Ishmael Muslims, Why?
JT: The road ahead is long and difficult. One book can change little. But I am involved in collaboration and exchange with colleagues throughout Europe and in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran and other countries. I remain convinced that education and learned debate and exchange are the best ways to combat prejudice.
Abdalrahman: Merci beaucoup pour ce sujet, professor John Tolan.
John Tolan: You’re welcome!
Please write: COMMENT in this box to verify that you are human