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The Earliest Spanish Christian Views of Islam

  • Kenneth Baxter Wolf (a1)

Twenty-five years ago, in the first of three now well-known lectures, R. W. Southern noted the “extremely slow penetration of Islam as an intellectually identifiable fact in Western minds.” Southern attributed this delay to the distance that separated Latin Christians from the Muslims. In the case of the northern Europeans, this distance was physical. After Poitiers, the military threat posed by Islam receded and assumed its place as only one among many peripheral challenges to the authority of the Carolingians and their successors. For the Christians of Spain, who lived within the boundaries of Islam, the distance was psychological. Out of their fear of cultural absorption, they closed their minds to the new religion and reacted with hostility against it. As a result, according to Southern, the first generations of Latin ecclesiastics who were in a position to assess Islam either did not bother to comprehend it or did so using only the most distorted information available, depending on which side of the Pyrenees they lived on.

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A shorter version of this paper was delivered at the Seventh Annual Medieval Forum in Plymouth, New Hampshire, 12 April 1986.

1. Southern R. W., Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), p. 13. Others have echoed his curiosity: Daniel Norman, The Arabs and Medieval Europe (London, 1975), p. 62;Metlitzki Dorothee, The Matter of Araby in Medieval England (New Haven, 1977), p. 14;Lewis Bernard, The Muslim Discovery of Europe (New York, 1982), p. 22.

2. Southern called it “ignorance of a confined space” (p. 13). Marie Thérèse D'Alverny was of much the same opinion: “The principal obstacles to the understanding of Islam by Westerners are difference in language and distance. A Latin of the early Middle Ages, even if he felt any curiosity with regard to the invaders that had conquered a large part of the Mediterranean basin, hardly had the means to satisfy it” (my translation); “La connaissance de l'Islam en occident du IXe au milieu du XIIe siècle,” L'Occidente l'Islam nell'alto medioevo, 2 vols., Settimane di studio del centro italiano di studi sull'alto Medioevo 12 (Spoleto, 1965), 2: 577578.

3. Kedar Benjamin Z., Crusade and Mission: European Attitudes toward the Muslims (Princeton, 1984), p. 36.

4. Both the Chronica Byzantia-Arabica and the Chronica Muzarabica can be found in Gil Juan, ed, Corpus scriptorum muzarabicorum, 2 vols. (Madrid, 1973), 1: 714, 1454 (hereafter cited as CSM). José Eduardo Lopez Pereira has edited and studied the later chronicle: Crónica mozárabe de 754 (Zaragoza, 1980) (hereafter cited as CM), and Estudzo critico sobre la crónica mozórabe de 754 (Zaragoza, 1980).

5. “De tribu illius gentis nobilissima natus prudens admodum uir et aliquantorum futurorum prouisor gestorum”; CSM 1: 9.

6. “Quem hactenus tanto honore et reuerentia colunt, ut Dei apostolum et prophetam eum in omnibus sacramentis suis esse scriptisque adlirment”; CSM 1: 9.

7. Sarraceni … Siriam, Arabiam et Mesopotamiam furtim magis quam uirtute Mammet eorum ducatore rebellia adortante … uicinas prouincias uastant”; CSM 1: 18; CM, chap. 8.

8. CSM 1: 19, 50; CM 11, 91.

9. Despite the author's rhetorical expression of grief at the turn of events in Spain—“if all the limbs of the body were turned into tongues, by no means would they suffice to tell of its ruin and misfortune”(CSM 1: 33; CM 55)—he did not choose to interpret the invasion as a divine scourge brought to bear against a decadent Christian kingdom. This way of explaining the Muslim occupation of Spain, first adopted by Boniface, would not appear in the works of Spanish authors until the mid-ninth century and would not become commonplace until it was adopted by the chroniclers of the nascent kingdom of Asturias in the last quarter of the same century. For Boniface's letter to King Aethelbald of Mercia (740s), see JaIfé P., ed., Monumenta Moguntina, p. 173. For the later Spanish references, see Moreno Manuel Gómez, “Las primeras crónicas de la Reconquista: el ciclo de Alfonso III,” Boletin de Ia Real Academia de la Historia 100 (1932).

10. on a few occasions, the author did use christiani when discussing the periodic tax increases that would have affected only the non-Muslims. The author apparently understood the religious basis of the jizya; CSM 1: 36, 39, 50;CM 64, 74, 75, 91.

11. On the other hand, Isidore, their most obvious literary model, had plenty to say about the Arianism of the Visigoths in his Historia. Yet he could write about sixth-century Arianism, safe in the knowledge that by Reccared's time (587) Catholicism had prevailed. His continuators did not enjoy such a vantage point vis-à-vis Islam. This being the case, if, like Isidore, they were composing the chronicles to legitimate a new and politically successful regime by incorporating it into previous peninsular history, we would not expect them to dwell on the religious differences that separated the rulers from the ruled.

12. Lopez Pereira suggests that these references were later interpolations, but they would still seem to be the work of an eighth-century author.

13. CM 74.1, 88.1, 93.

14. For an overview of eighth-century Spanish heterodoxy, see Recio Juan Francisco Rivera, “La iglesia mozárabe,” Historia de la iglesia en Españ, vol. 2, Pt. 1 (Madrid, 1982).

15. CSM 1: 1–6, 55–58, 78–112. For the Adoptionist controversy in general, see Pelikan Jaroslav, The Growth of Medieval Theology (600–1300), vol. 3,The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago, 1978), pp. 5259. For Elipandus, see Juan Francisco Rivera Recio, Elipando de Toledo (Toledo, 1940).

16. CSM 1: 68–77, 114–124. It is interesting, too, that the famous commentary on the Apocalypse composed by Beatus of Liébana in the 770s should be equally devoid of information about Islam. Although, as we shall see, the identification of Muhammad and the forces of Antichrist became a theme of anti-Muslim polemic in the next century, Beatus was content to interpret Revelation as if the political climate in the Mediterranean had not changed significantly since imperial times.

17. The Arabic text, with a Castilian translation, can be found in Simonet Francisco X., Historia de los mozárabes de España (Madrid, 1903), pp. 797798.

18. For a recent and succinct overview of the relationship between Muslims and “peoples of the book,” see Lewis Bernard, The Jews of Islam (Princeton, 1984), pp. 366. For more detailed treatments, see Fattal Antoine, Le statut légal des non-musulmans en pays d'Islam (Beirut, 1958);Khadduri Majid, War and Peace in the Law of Islam (Baltimore, 1958);Tritton A. S., The Caliphs and their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study of the Covenant of 'Umar (London, 1930). For the situation in Spain, see Glick Thomas, Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages (Princeton, 1979).

19. Hodgson Marshall G. S., The Venture of Islam, vol. 1,The Classical Age of Islam (Chicago, 1974), pp. 208209;Collins Roger, Early Medieval Spain: Unity and Diversity, 400–1000 (New York, 1983), pp. 160161.

20. As Glick observed, “the intent of the dhimma arrangement … was to ensure that religious groups were kept separate, distinct and apart from one another, lest the dominant religion suffer contamination from the subordinate ones”; Islamic and Christian Spain, p. 169.

21. Those who have considered this autonomy out of its proper context have marvelled at the “tolerance” of the Muslims. But as Glick has observed: “The communal autonomy of the groups, often represented as the very symbol of tolerance, was in fact the institutional expression of ethnocentric norms which held such groups in abhorrence, as tolerated but alienated citizens who were not to share in social life on the same basis as members of the dominant religion”; Islamic and Christian Spain, p. 174. Robert I. Burns, S. J., noted the same phenomenon occurring in thirteenth-century Valencia, when the political tables had turned and the Christians were segregating themselves from the Muslim majority: “Tolerance at this extreme is not easily distinguishable from intolerance”; Islam under the Crusaders (Princeton, 1973), pp. 186187.

22. Collins, Early Medieval Spain, p. 166.

23. The emir al-Hakam I (796–822) created a special bodyguard headed by the Cordoban count Rabi, son of Theodulf. Rabi also served as tax collector and ultimately was executed for alleged misappropriations; Lévi-Provençal Evariste, Histoire de l'Espagne musulmane, 3 vols., 2d ed. (Paris, 1950), 1: 164, 196. Samson, who became abbot of Pinna Mellaria (near Córdoba) in 858, composed his Apologeticus in response to what he regarded as reprehensible conduct on the parts of Count Servandus of Córdoba and Bishop Hortegesis of Málaga, who were both tax farmers; Apologeticus 2, preface, para. 5 (CSM 2: 551). Eulogius of Córdoba, writing in the early 850s, railed against this practice; Memoriale sanctorum 3.5 (CSM 2: 443). He also referred by name to a Christian soldier in the emir's army and to a system of military pensions from which certain Christians benefited; ibid. 2.3, 3.1 (CSM 2: 402, 440). We also know of two Cordoban Christians who occupied the office of katib adh–dhimam (secretary to the covenant, a liaison between the emir and the Christian community) and a third who served as a translator; ibid. 2.2, 2.15.2, 3.2 (CSM 2: 402, 435, 440); Apologeticus 2, preface, para. 9 (CSM 2: 554).

24. Alvarus Paulus (H. 850s), Indiculus luminosis 5 (CSM 1: 277278).

25. Alvarus, indiculus luminosis 35 (CSM 1: 314).

26. Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain, pp. 3335.

27. Geanakoplos Deno John, in his interaction of the “Sibling” Byzantine and Western Cultures in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (New Haven, 1976), p. 18, points out that “in times of grave danger to the very fabric of society, particularly when the peril of assimilation to another culture looms, some kind of cultural revival … in the form of a virtual digging up of the past may break out among those alienated from the course of compromise or submission being followed by the leaders of that society.” Though his particular reference point was a Byzantine Greek culture that felt threatened by Latin domination, the same principle seems to be at the heart of the dilemma faced by culturally sensitive Spanish Christians.

28. Monumenta Germanae Historica, Aevi Epistolae Karolini, ed. Duemmler Ernest (Berlin, 1895), 2: 284 (hereafter cited as MCH). D'Alverny stops short of making any connections between his authorship of an adversus sarracenos treatise and his involvement in the heresy; “La connaissance de l'Islam,” p. 587. But if, as some scholars believe, the Adoptionist christology was a product of Islamization, someone like Felix may have been especially sensitive to the blurring of the doctrinal lines separating Islam and Christianity. Felix's heretical views were the target of multiple conciliar denunciations from 792 until his deposition in 799.

29. Eulogius, who was a student of Speraindeo at the school associated with the church of Saint Zoilus, included an excerpt from the treatise in one of his works. The format of the excerpt indicates that the lost treatise was at least in part a point-by-point rebuttal of Islamic doctrine. The portion quoted by Eulogius dealt with the Islamic description of the afterlife, which his master attacked as more of a “lupanar” than a paradise; Memoriale sanctorum 1.7 (CSM 2: 75–376).

30. Again, Eulogius is our main source. He encountered the biography in the library of the Navarrese monastery at Leyre around 850; Liber apologeticus martyrum 16 (CSM 2: 483–486). See CSM 2: 483, n. 16, for extant manuscripts of the same. One of the letters of Paulus Alvarus to Joannes of Seville contains a summary of the same; Epistutae 6.9 (CSM 1: 200–201).

31. It is very possible that Urgel, located in the northern extreme of Catalonia, was still controlled by the Muslim governor of Zaragosa when Felix wrote. The Frankish presence in Spain did not really become permanent until the conquest of Gerona in 793. At some point between 793 and the conquest of Barcelona in 801, Urgel became part of the Spanish March. Internal evidence suggests that the biography of Leyre was composed by a Toledan; D'Alverny, “La connaissance de l'Islam,” pp. 587588.

32. Memoriale sanctorum 1, preface, para. 2–3, 2. 3, 2. 4 (CSM 2: 367–368, 402, 403–404).

33. For studies of the Cordoban martyrs, see Wolf Kenneth B., “Christian Martyrs in Muslim Spain: Eulogius of Córdoba and the Making of a Martyrs' Movement” (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1985);Colbert Edward P., “The Martyrs of Córdoba (850–859): A Study of the Sources” (Ph.D. diss., Catholic University of America, 1962);Francke Franz R., “Die freiwilligen Märtyrer von Cordova und das Verhältnis des Mozarabes zum Islam (nach den Schriften von Speraindeo, Eulogius und Alvar),” Spanische Forschungen des Gürresgeseltschaft 13 (1953): 1170. For more brief overviews, see Daniel, The Arabs and Metheval Europe, 2d ed., chap. 2: “The Martyrs of Cordova,” pp. 2348;Waltz James, “The Significance of the Voluntary Martyr Movement of Ninth-Century Córdoba,” Muslim World 60 (1970): 143159, 226236;Cutler Allan, “The Ninth-Century Spanish Martyrs' Movement and the Origins of the Western Christian Missions to the MuslimsMuslim World 55 (1965): 321339.

34. “Dicunt enim quod ab hominibus Deum et legem colentibus passi sunt”; Liber apologeticus martyrum 12 (CSM 2: 481).

35. This is the earliest reference to Islam as a separate religion. See Daniel Norman, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Edinburgh, 1960), pp. 188192, for later ones.

36. “asserentes quod ab hominibus Deum colentibus et legem habentibus isti tirones nostrorum temporum milites occisi fuere, nulla discreti prudentia, Ut saltim prouido cogitamine aduertant quia si talium cultus aut lex uera dicenda est pro certo uigor Xpianae religionis infirmabitur”; Liber apologeticus martyrum 17–18 (CSM 2:486).

37. Ibid.; Galatians 1.9.

38. “qua consequentia credendum est daemoniosum et mendacio plenum ueritatem proferre, fallaciis obuolutum legem donare, nemus peruersum fructus bonos exhibere? Ille interim nefandus de malo cordis suo thesauro proferens malum et uulgo insipienti ducatum impietatis ministrans, uterque praecipitium in chaos aeternum poenas luiturus incurrit”; ibid.

39. “ore blasphemo docuit Xpm Dei uerbum esse et spiritum eius et prophetam quidem magnum, nulla vero deitatis potentia praeditum”; Liber apotogeticus martyrum 19 (CSM 2: 487).

40. The exile of Hilary to Phrygia in 356 exposed him to all of the theological intricacies of the Arian conflict. His writings provided subsequent generations of Latin ecciesiastics with a vocabulary for dealing with later christological heresies.

41. “Denique inter ceteros post ascensionem Domini haeresum auctores solus hic infaustus nouae superstitionis sectam instinctu diaboli condens procul ab ecclesiae sanctae conuentu desciscitur, auctoritatem priscae legis infamans, prophetarum uaticinia respuens, sancti euangelii ueritatem conculcans et apostolorum doctrinam detestans”; Liber apologeticus martyrum 19 (CSM 2: 487).

42. From late antiquity, “antichrist” had two quite distinct meanings. The book of Revelation was the main source for the concept of a specific Antichrist, that would play a key role in ushering in the Last Days. But from the time of Tertullian (see, for example, Adversus Marcionem 5.16), Christian leaders also adopted a more general usage of the term based on 1 John 2.22, “He is the Antichrist who denies the Father and the Son” (see I John 2.18, 4.2–3; 2 John 1.7), and applied it to heretics. It proved an especially popular epithet for those ecciesiastics, such as Anus and Nestor, whose Christological views contradicted the formulae of the ecumenical councils. Hilary wrote of Anus, “When you preach the Father and Son as Creator and Creature, do you think that you can avoid, through disguised names, being regarded as antichrist?” De trinitate 6.42 (PL 10: 191). Isidore of Seville included both the specific and general meanings of the term in Etymologies 8.11.20–22. Eulogius presumably would have made more use of it had not his friend and fellow apologist Paulus Alvarus taken up the task for him. In marked contrast to Beatus of Liébana, Alvarus did not hesitate to depart from the authoritative interpretations of the antichrist passages to apply them to Muhammad; Indiculus luminosis 2135 (CSM 1: 293–315).

43. Matthew 7.15, 24.11, 24.24, and so on. Eulogius was not the first Christian author to describe Islam as a heresy, or Muhammad as a false prophet. John of Damascus, whose depiction of the “Ishmaelites” in his treatise on heresies proved paradigmatic for generations of Greek Christians trying to cope with Islam, preceded him by more than a century. But the Damascene never paused to unpack the symbolic baggage that accompanied these identifications. The Cordoban, on the other hand, did. For more on early Byzantine views of Islam, see Moorhead J., “The Earliest Christian Theological Response to Islam,” Religion 11 (1981): 265274;Sahas D. J., John of Damascus on Islam: The “Heresy of the Ishmaelites (Leiden, 1972);Khoury A., Polémique byzantine contre l'Islam: VIIe au XIIIe siècles (Leiden, 1972).

44. Memoriale sanctorum 1.7, 2.1.2 (PL 115: 744, 766–767; CSM 2: 375–376, 398–399).

45. Eulogius's incorporation into his polemic of the Muhammad biography was designed to add the weight of authority to his identification of the Muslim prophet with the pseudopropheta; Liber apologeticus martyrum 16 (CSM 2: 483486).

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