Review – Saracens by John Tolan

Tolan has produced a clear, thorough, and comprehensive introduction to the perception of Islam in the West. While somewhat restricted in terms of source material—it relies almost exclusively on histories and treatises—it is chronologically wide-ranging. The reader can follow the developments and disagreements over centuries. Tolan synthesizes massive amounts of material in clear prose, making this the first stop for a reader interested in broaching the subject. Within the guild, Tolan takes aim at a crude form of Edward Said’s Orientalism, which he fears reifies the West in its argument of how the West has reified the East.

The overarching theme of the book is the difficulty of Western Christians in really coming to grips with Islam as a religion comparable to their own. Christian concepts of history and geography were centered on the appearance of Christ, a descendant of Jews and subject of the Romans. After a few centuries Christianity subjugated both the Jews and the Empire. What remained but to extirpate heresies and bring Christianity to the barbarians on the edges of the world?

The sudden, triumphant arrival of a powerful, sophisticated culture from the East upset this idea of the world. In the sixth to eighth centuries, Christians reacted to Muslims as an ethnic and military rather than religious threat. Calling them Saracens for reasons still unclear, they viewed them as a barbarian tribe menacing the Empire, similar to the Goths or Huns of earlier centuries. Seeking to explain their spectacular victories, Christians drew on Old Testament categories. The Saracens must be like the Babylonians or Persians, a scourge sent to encourage Christians to repent. The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius presents the Muslim invasions as a return of the Ishmaelites. The loss of the Holy Land and the apostasy of Christians are signs of the last days. Christians must persevere through testing. When their trial is complete, the Byzantine Emperor will oust the infidels and usher in the end of history and the final peace of the world.

Apocalyptic predictions aside, Christians under their new Islamic masters produced apologetic works to counter the steady stream of converts. These works had difficulty in recognizing Islam as a competing religion because they were based on a conceptual framework inherited from Epiphanius of Salamis. His Panarion (Medicine Chest) was a manual for countering heresies, but it was also an attempt at a taxonomy of world religions. His categories of barbarism, Scythianism (paganism), Judaism, and Christianity referred to distinct historical stages. In this system, after the appearance of Christ, all new heresies were presumed to be deviant Christian sects. Christians who inherited this system struggled to place Islam, if they tried at all. Was it a powerful form of paganism or a new Christian heresy? The struggle is clear in John of Damascus’ Fount of Knowledge. One of the great works of its era, approaching a systematic theology complete with philosophical prolegomena, it includes a section On Heresies derived from Ephiphanius. Islam is listed as the last of 100 heresies that have plagued the Church. He treats it as a Christological heresy and deploys against it arguments refined against Nestorians, Jacobites, Manichaeans, and others.

One text from this period that takes Muslim theology seriously is the Risâlat al-Kindî. Purportedly an exchange of letters between a Muslim and a Christian, this text was most likely written by a Syrian Christian with a good knowledge of Islam. Its attacks on aspects of Muslim theology, defenses of key Christian doctrines, and perhaps above all its hostile biography of Muhammad made it one of the most influential Christian apologetic texts, both by imitation and by its translation into Latin in the 12th century.

Around the time of the First Crusade and the Spanish reconquista of Al-Andalus, the Western Christian portrayal of Islam was assuming a definite and highly inaccurate form. Texts written by Westerners (as opposed to those actually living as dhimmi under Muslim sovereignty) portrayed Islam as a polytheistic or at least idol-worshiping form of paganism. In the Chanson de Roland, the Muslims destroy their own idol of Muhammad, enraged that it failed to grant them victory over Christians. (To underline just how ahistorical this is, it’s worth remembering that the historical Roland wasn’t even fighting Muslims, but Christian Basques.) Apart from Guibert of Nogent, all the chroniclers of the First Crusade describe Muslims as pagans. They tempt to Christians to worship their gods, offering them money and power. The Christians never accept, to the Muslims’ consternation. Several texts mention (fabricated) idols of Muhammad. The Gesta Tancredi even has the Frankish general Tancred enter the temple of Solomon and destroy a magnificent silver idol of Muhammad.

Equating Islam with paganism allows Western Christians to reconnect with their own historical tradition. As the early Christians had been persecuted by Roman pagans, only to emerge triumphant over the Empire, so the Latin Christians would rescue the Christians of the Holy Land and subjugate these new Saracen pagans. The link between Roman persecution and Arab domination was so strong that in some texts they are explicitly connected. In Hrotsvitha’s Passion of Pelagius, the persecuting sultan ‘Abd al-Rahmân is dressed as a Roman pagan. Conversely, in the anonymous Life of Saint Katherine, the Roman emperor Maxentius is presented as a contemporary sultan.

This model of Muslim as pagan idolator has had a long afterlife. It’s worth quoting a paragraph from the book here:
“The idols of Mahomet live on into the twentieth century in the festivals of small towns in Spain, many of which involve annual ritual reenactments of the reconquest of the town from the Muslims. In a number of these fiestas of “Moors and Christians,” a squadron of local inhabitants dressed up as Moros take over a mock citadel and set up a “Mahoma”—a dressed-up effigy meant to represent Muhammad—on the walls. In the mock siege that follows, the Christian troops take over the citadel and destroy the Mahoma. In some of the fiestas, the Mahoma, filled with fireworks, explodes in a spectacular (and somewhat dangerous) pyrotechnic finale.” (133)

By the twelfth century, Latin knowledge of Islam was becoming more accurate. Several reasons may be adduced for this. First, Spanish reconquest of Muslim-held lands in Spain meant that there was now a significant body of Muslims living under Christian rule. At Toledo Christians were hard at work translating all kinds of Arabic scientific texts into Latin. Peter of Cluny sponsored the first translation into Latin of Islamic religious materials, including the Quran, several texts of Arab folklore, and the previously mentioned Risâlat al-Kindî. Also, the establishment of crusader states in the Levant and the mediation of the Italian city-states allowed more Christians to make journeys to the Holy Land and spend time around Muslims. Finally, scholasticism was underway; Latin Christendom as a whole was entering a more intellectually rigorous phase.

Twelfth-century texts focused more heavily on Muhammad himself as a heresiarch and false prophet, in some ways moving back to the model established by John of Damascus. Christian biographies of Muhammad often incorporated the crassest of legends. Muhammad is a mountebank, perpetrating fraudulent miracles to gain a following. Alternatively, he is versed in black arts. In several texts he is killed and devoured by pigs, an extreme insult since Muslims consider them unclean. Yet Muhammad performs one last trick, as he is placed in a floating tomb, where his body draws worship. Christians, however, see through this jugglery; the crypt is made of iron and placed at the center of a magnetized room. Thus, Christian “science” confutes Saracen gullibility.

Twelfth-century Christian apologists also took an aggressive stance. Now the Quran was in Latin, and a few clerics had even learned Arabic. Scriptural arguments were thus deployed. Muhammad was a false prophet, some said, since he did not correctly predict his own death. (Prophets in the Islamic tradition are not expected to foresee the future.) The Quran is silly or has contradictions or itself proclaims the truth of Christianity. The Muslim idea of a paradise of carnal delights is infantile and disgusting compared to the (heavily allegorized and scrubbed) Christian scholastic portrayal of heaven as the beatific vision. Apologetics of this sort, composed by Alan of Lille, Peter of Cluny, and others demonstrate a heightened knowledge of Islam, but still from a completely Christian perspective. One significant shift deserves emphasis. Earlier Christian-Muslim interactions were decidedly unevangelistic. The First Crusade had as its explicit objective cleansing the Holy Land of infidels, not converting infidels to Christianity. Early apologetics were likewise defensive, attempts to prevent apostasy. Now Latin Christians were beginning to think that the sword of the gospel might be as or more effective than the sword of the crusader.

In the thirteenth century, both scholasticism and missionary zeal peaked. Renewed apocalypticism certainly played a role. In his Quia Maior (1213), Pope Innocent III prophesied that the end of Islam. He called for a Fifth Crusade and a wave of missions. In 1239, Pope Gregory IX’s Cum hora undecima (Since it is the eleventh hour) sounded an even more apocalyptic tone. During this century, scholastics had unprecedented access to Islamic philosophical texts. This opened up new hopes for conversion. Since philosophy was surely on the side of Christianity, and since many Muslims (and Jews) were interested in philosophy, the remarkable convergence of philosophical vocabulary and method among the three religions could become the most powerful conversion tool yet. Yet not everyone took this route. Early Franciscan missions to Muslim lands were undertaken more for the prize of martyrdom than for conversion. Their preaching was plain and inflammatory rather than philosophical. They did made a few martyrs, but also only a few converts. Later Franciscans would join the rest of Christendom in adopting a more pragmatic strategy. Some, such as John of Piano Carpini and William of Rubruck, journeyed beyond the borders even of Islam to preach and debate the faith at the Mongol capital of Karakorum.

Most Christian scholars in the thirteenth century had come to a slightly chastened position on the role of philosophy. Reason could show the absurdities in other religions and demonstrate that nothing in Christianity was contrary to reason, but it could not positively prove key Christian doctrines such as the incarnation and Trinity. Such was the position of Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa contra Gentiles would exercise considerable influence over theologians, despite his scarce knowledge of or experience with Islamic religion. It was also the position of Dominicans on the front lines of missions, such as Ramon Martí. His Pugio fidei (Dagger of the Faith) was a massive manual for engaging in debate with Jews. Several similar, though smaller, works were written for Muslims. In the Aragonese kingdom, Jews and Muslims could be compelled to listen to preachers. These captive audiences proved disappointingly unreceptive to the Dominicans’ carefully rehearsed orations. As the century wore on, apocalyptic enthusiasm turned to bitter resignation. The Crusader states had been eliminated and the Mongol khan had converted to Islam. The Latins knew their apologetics were not at fault, so the blame fell on Muslims and Jews, now regarded as obstinate, irrational, sensual Orientals. Thus, Tolan succeeds in identifying the origin of Edward Said’s Western concept of the Oriental.

Two remarkable, eccentric figures bucked this general trend. Roger Bacon was a Franciscan deeply interested in new knowledge: geographical, chronological, philosophical, experimental, occult. His Opus maius, written to and at the behest of Pope Clement IV, outlines a strategy for regaining the Holy Land. Bacon is not a pacifist, but he has little faith in warfare, a sensible stance in light of recent Christian military defeats. Rather, Christendom needs to establish academies to train elite evangelists. They will be furnished with the latest philosophy, technology (scientia experimentalis), and astrology. They will possess rational arguments capable of defeating all objections. They will also be trained in rhetoric, such as Thomas of Chobham’s Summa de arte praedicandi (Summary of the Art of Preaching), so that they will be able to persuade the will.

Ramon Llull did not share Bacon’s interest in occult and scientific mastery, but he did think he had a surefire method for converting the infidels. In 1263 the Majorcan had a vision of Christ in agony, which left him dedicated “to preach conversion to the Saracens, giving up his life for Christ if necessary; to write ‘a book, the best in the world, against the errors of unbelievers [infidelium]’; and to convince the Pope and the Christian princes to establish monasteries where Christians could learn Arabic and the languages of other infidels” (257). On a mountaintop he received a second vision, in which a book was divinely revealed to him. This Ars generalis (General Art) was the key to all knowledge; it contained a method whereby doctrines of the faith could be proved conclusively. Unfortunately, few even of Llull’s colleagues could make heads or tails of the Art. That did not stop him from writing letters of advice to the Pope. They contained strategies for retaking the Holy Land by force and for financing the expedition. They counseled that Jews and Muslims in Christian lands be compelled to submit some of their brightest youth to undergo re-education at Christian academies. As graduates, they would return to convert their homelands. Despite his considerable erudition, Llull’s idiosyncratic style led to his increasing marginalization.

At the end of Tolan’s survey, it becomes apparent that medieval Christians never did come to grips with Islam. They ridiculed Arabic folklore while writing their own preposterous saint’s lives. They deployed “magic bullet” apologetics, thinking that Muslims simply needed to be corrected on a point they had misunderstood; surely no intelligent person could actually understand Christianity and still reject it. They engaged in very little dialogue, though that didn’t stop them from crafting dialogues in which they wrote both sides. Perhaps the West did not come to grips with Islam as a religion in its own right until the concept of religion as a general category was developed in nineteenth-century Germany. Or perhaps it never has.