From the moment it emerged as a universal religion, Islam became a major challenge for Christianity: it was a new dispensation from Heaven that claimed to have completed the cycle of Abrahamic revelations. The references to Jewish and Christian themes in the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions (hadith), sometimes concurring with and sometimes diverging from the Biblical accounts, contributed to the Christians’ sense of both consternation and insecurity on the one hand, and to the urgency of responding to the Islamic claims of authenticity and family relation to monotheism, on the other.
The earliest polemics between Muslim scholars and Christian theologians that took place in the Islamic world attest to the zeal of the two communities to defend their faiths against one another. Baghdad and Damascus from the 8th through the 10th centuries were the two main centers of intellectual exchange and theological polemics between Muslims and Christians. Even though theological rivalry is an invariable of this period, many ideas were exchanged in the fields of philosophy, logic, and theology – taking the mode of interaction beyond theological bickering. In fact, Christian theologians posed a double challenge to their Muslim counterparts because they were a step ahead in cultivating a full-fledged theological vocabulary by using the lore of ancient Greek and Hellenistic culture.
No one single figure can illustrate this situation better than St. John of Damascus (c. 675-749) known in Arabic as Yahya Al-Dimashqi and in Latin as Johannes Damascenus. A court official of the Umayyad caliphate in Syria like his father Ibn Mansur, St. John was a crucial figure not only for the formation of Orthodox theology and the fight against the iconoclast movement of the 8th century, but also for the history of Christian polemics against “Saracens” – a pejorative name used for Muslims in most of the anti-Islamic polemics whose origins go back in all likelihood to St. John himself.
St. John’s polemics, together with his contemporary Bede (d. 735) and, a generation later, Theodore Abu-Qurrah (d. 820 or 830), against Islam – as an essentially ‘Christian heresy’ or, to use St. John’s own words, as the “heresy of the Ishmaelites” – set the tone for the perceptions of Islam and continued to be an operative factor until the end of the Renaissance. In fact, most of the theological depictions concerning Islam as a ‘deceptive superstition of the Ishmaelites’ and a ‘forerunner of the Antichrist’ go back to St. John, who had no intentions for an interfaith understanding vis-à-vis Muslims. What is curious about St. John’s impact on his coreligionists in Western Europe is that he had a direct knowledge of the language and ideas of Muslims, which was radically absent among his followers in the West. R. W. Southern has rightly called this the “historical problem of Christianity” vis-à-vis Islam in the middle ages, viz., lack of first-hand knowledge of Islamic beliefs and practices as a precaution or deliberate choice to dissuade and prevent Christians from contaminating themselves with a heretic offshoot of Christianity.
The absence of direct contact and reliable sources of knowledge led to a long history of spurious scholarship against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in Western Christianity, and as a result, Islam remained as an eerie foe in the European consciousness for a good part of the Middle Ages. The problem was further compounded by the Byzantine opposition to Islam and the decidedly inimical literature produced by Byzantine theologians between the 8th and the 10th centuries on mostly theological grounds. Even though the anti-Islamic Byzantine literature displays considerable first-hand knowledge of Islamic faith and practices, including specific criticisms of some verses of the Qur’an, the perception of Islam as a theological rival and heresy was the leitmotif of this type of literature and provided a solid historical and theological basis for the later critiques of Islam.
If deliberate ignorance was the cherished strategy of the period, the out-and-out rejection of Islam as a theological challenge was no less significant. The Qur’anic assertion of Divine unity without the Trinity, countenance of Jesus Christ as God’s prophet divested of divinity, and sustaining a religious community without the clergy and a church-like authority were some of the challenges that did not go unnoticed in the Western Christendom. Unlike Eastern Christianity that had a presence in the midst of the Muslim world and better access to the Muslim faith, the image of Islam in the West was relegated to an unqualified heresy par excellence and regarded as no different than paganism or Manichaenism from which St. Augustine had his historical conversion to Christianity.
In contrast to Spain in a later period where the three Abrahamic faiths had a remarkable period of intellectual and cultural exchange, the vacuum created by the spatial and intellectual confinement of Western Christianity was filled in by folk tales about Islam and Muslims, paving the way for the new store of images, ideas, stories and myths that were brought in by the stories and fantasies of Crusaders. Paradoxically, the Crusades did not bring any new or more reliable knowledge about Islam but reinforced its image as paganism and idolatry.
There was, however, one very important consequence of the Crusades as far as the perceptions of Islam are concerned. The Crusaders, it is to be noted, were the first Western Christians to go into the Islamdom and witness Islamic culture with its cities, roads, bazaars, mosques, palaces, and, most importantly, its inhabitants. With the Crusader came not only the legend of Saladin (Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi), the conqueror of Jerusalem, but also the stories of Muslim life, its promiscuity, its wealth and luxury, and a number of goods such as silk and paper. Combined with popular imagery, these stories and imported goods – presenting a world picture immersed in the luscious joys and luxuries of worldly life – confirmed the wicked nature of the heresy of the Ishmaelites. Even though the subdued sense of admiration tacit in these stories did very little in ameliorating the image of Islam, it opened a new door of perception for Islam and Muslims as a culture and civilization. In this way, Islam, vilified on purely religious and theological grounds, became something of a neutral value – if not possessing any importance in itself.
The significance of this shift in perception cannot be overemphasized. After the 14th century when Christianity began to loose its grip on the Western world, many lay people, who did not bother themselves with Christian criticisms of Islam or any other culture and religion for that matter, were more than happy to refer to Islamic culture as a world outside the theological and geographical confinements of Christianity. In a rather curious way, Islamic civilization, to the extent to which it was known in Western Europe, was pitted against Christianity to reject its exclusive claim to truth and universality. This explains, to a considerable extent, the double attitude of the Renaissance towards Islam; the Renaissance Europe hated Islam as a religion but admired its civilization.
During the passionate and bloody campaign of the Crusades, a most important and unexpected development took place for the written literature on Islam in the Middle Ages, and this was the translation of the Qur’an for the first time into Latin under the auspices of Peter the Venerable (d.c. 1156). The translation was done by the English scholar Robert of Ketton who completed his rather free and incomplete rendition in July 1143. As expected, the motive for this translation was not to gain a better understanding of Islam by reading its sacred scripture but to know the enemy better. Regardless of the intention behind it, the translation of the Qur’an was a momentous event since it shaped the scope and direction of the study of Islam in the middle ages and provided the critics of Islamic religion with a text on which they can build much of their anticipated criticisms.
Parallel with this was an event that proved to be even more persistent and alarming to Europe. The extant literature on the life of the Prophet of Islam in Latin is by far more extensive and elaborate as well as ornate in depicting a picture of Prophet Muhammad that was to last up to our own day. And although St. John of Damascus was the first to call the Prophet of Islam a ‘false prophet’ before the 12th century there are hardly any references to ‘Mahomet’ as the Prophet Muhammad was known to the Latins, and he does not appear to have any significance for the formation of Christian polemics against Muslims. With the induction of the Prophet into the picture, however, a new and eschatological dimension was added to the preordained case of Islam as a villain faith because the Prophet of Islam could now be identified as the anti-Christ heralding the end of the times.
The picturing of the Prophet of Islam suffered from the same historical problem of medieval Europe to which we have referred, namely the lack of the study of Islam based on original sources, texts, first-hand accounts, or histories. The notorious fact that there was not a single scholar among the Latin critics of Islam until the end of the 13th century who knew Arabic resurfaced as a major catalyst for the spurious depictions of the Prophet of Islam. The first work ever to appear on the Prophet Muhammad in Latin was Embrico of Mainz’s (d. 1077) Vita Mahumeti, culled mostly from Byzantine sources and embellished with profligate details about the personal and social life of the Prophet. The picture that emerges out of such works largely corroborated the apocalyptic framework within which the Prophet of Islam and his discomforting success in spreading the new faith was seen as fulfilling the Biblical promise of the anti-Christ. The theological concerns of the time simply shun any appeal to reliable scholarship for the next one or two centuries to come and laid the ideological foundations of the image of the Prophet.
Almost all of the Latin works that have survived on the life of the Prophet had one solid goal: to show the impossibility of such a man as Muhammad to be God’s messenger. This is exceedingly clear in the picture with which we are presented. The prophet’s ‘this-worldly’ qualities as compared to the ‘other-worldly’ nature of Jesus Christ were a constant theme. The Prophet was given to sex and political power, both of which he used, the Latins reasoned, to destroy Christianity. He was merciless towards his enemies, especially towards Jews and Christians, and took pleasure in having his opponents tortured and killed. The only reasonable explanation for the enormous success of Muhammad in religious and political fields was something as malicious as heresy, viz., that he was a magician and used magical powers to convince and convert people. The focus on the psychological states of the Prophet was so persuasive, so it seemed to the Latins, and so persistent that as late as in the 19th century William Muir (1819-1905), a British official in India and later the Principal of Edinburgh University, joined his ‘medireview’ predecessors by calling the Prophet a ‘psychopath’ in his extremely polemical Life of Mohammed. There are many other details that can be mentioned here such as the Christian background of the Prophet, his dead body being eaten and desecrated by pigs or that he was baptized secretly just before his death as a last attempt to save his soul. These details are truly interesting and reveal various facets of the spirit of the age in which the picture of the Prophet was drawn in an exceedingly hostile, polemical, shallow yet steady manner.
The foregoing image of the Prophet of Islam was an extension of the erstwhile rejection of the Qur’an as authentic revelation. In fact, with the Prophet in the picture as a possessed and hallucinatory spirit, it was much more convincing in the eyes of the opponents to attribute the Qur’an to such a man as Muhammad. Having said that, there was also a deeper theological reason for focusing on the figure of the Prophet. Since Christianity is essentially a ‘Christic’ religion and Jesus Christ embodies the word of God, the Latin critics of Islam presumed a parallel paradigm for Islam according to which Muhammad was accorded a similar role in the religious universe of Islam. At any rate, the rejection of the Qur’an as the word of God and the representation of the Prophet of Islam as a possessed spirit and magician immersed in the lusts of the inferior world stayed with the Western perceptions of Islam until the modern period.
Perhaps the most important outcome of the medireview Christian repudiation of Islam has been the exclusion of Islam from the family of monotheistic religions. Even in the modern period where the interfaith trialogue between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has come a long way, we are still far from speaking with confidence of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition by which Islam can be seen as belonging to the same religious universe as the other Abrahamic religions. It goes without saying that the absence of such a discourse does nothing short of reinforcing the medireview perceptions of Islam as a heretic and pagan faith, thwarting the likelihood of generating a more inclusive picture of Islam on predominantly religious grounds.
The Middle Ages: From Theological Rivalry to the Creation of “the Other”