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Medieval Christian views on Muhammad

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Medieval Christian views on Muhammad

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During the Early Middle Ages, the Christian world largely viewed Islam as a Christological heresy and Muhammad as a false prophet. By the Late Middle Ages, Islam was more typically grouped with heathenism and Muhammad viewed as inspired by the devil. A more relaxed or benign view of Islam only developed in the modern period, after the Islamic empires ceased to be an acute military threat to Europe, see Orientalism.

The earliest documented Christian knowledge of Muhammad stems from Byzantine sources, written shortly after Muhammad's death in 632. With the Crusades of the High Middle Ages, and the wars against the Ottoman Empire during the Late Middle Ages, the Christian reception of Muhammad became more polemical, moving from the classification as a heretic to depiction of Muhammad as a servant of Satan or as the Antichrist, who will be suffering tortures in Hell.


In contrast to the Islamic views of Muhammad, the Christian image stayed highly negative for over a millennium.[1][2][3]

Early Middle Ages

The earliest (documented) Christian knowledge of Muhammad stems from Byzantine sources, written shortly after Muhammad's death in 632. In the Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati, a dialogue between a recent Christian convert and several Jews, one participant writes that his brother "wrote to [him] saying that a deceiving prophet has appeared amidst the Saracens". Another participant in the Doctrina replies about Muhammad: "He is deceiving. For do prophets come with sword and chariot?, …[Y]ou will discover nothing true from the said prophet except human bloodshed".[4] Though Muhammad is never called by his name,[5][6] there seems to have been knowledge of his existence. It also appears that both Jews and Christians viewed him in a negative light.[7] Other contemporary sources, such as the writings of the Patriarch Sophronius, show there was no knowledge of the Saracens having their own prophet or faith, and only remark that the (Muslim) Saracen attacks must be a punishment for Christian sins.[8]

Knowledge of Muhammad was available in Christendom from after the early expansion of his religion[9][10] and, later, the translation of a polemical work by John of Damascus, who used the phrase "false prophet."[11] According to the Encyclopædia Britannica Christian knowledge of Muhammad's life "was nearly always used abusively".[1] Another influential source was the Epistolae Saraceni or the “Letters of a Saracen” written by an Oriental Christian and translated into Latin from Arabic.[1] From the 9th century onwards, highly negative biographies of Muhammad were written in Latin,[1] such as the one by Alvarus of Cordoba proclaiming him the Anti-Christ.[12] Christendom also gained some knowledge of Muhammad through the Mozarabs of Spain, such as the 9th century Eulogius of Cordova,[1] who was one of the Martyrs of Córdoba.

High Middle Ages

"Mohammed and the Murdered Monk", 1508 engraving by Lucas van Leyden – an incident unattested in Islamic accounts of the Prophet's life

In the 11th century Petrus Alphonsi, a Jew who converted to Christianity, was another Mozarab source of information on Muhammad.[1] Later during the 12th century Peter the Venerable, who saw Muhammad as the precursor to the Anti-Christ and the successor of Arius,[12] ordered the translation of the Qur'an into Latin (Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete) and the collection of information on Muhammad so that Islamic teachings could be refuted by Christian scholars.[1]

During the 13th century European biographers completed their work on the life of Muhammad in a series of works by scholars such as Pedro Pascual, Ricoldo de Monte Croce, and Ramon Llull[1] in which Muhammad was depicted as an Antichrist while Islam was shown to be a Christian heresy.[1] The fact that Muhammad was unlettered, that he married a wealthy widow, that in his later life he had several wives, that he was involved in several wars, and that he died like an ordinary person in contrast to the Christian belief in the supernatural end of Christ's earthly life were all arguments used to discredit Muhammad.[1]

Medieval scholars and churchmen held that Islam was the work of Muhammad who in turn was inspired by Satan. Muhammad was frequently calumniated and made a subject of legends taught by preachers as fact.[13] For example, in order to show that Muhammad was the anti-Christ, it was asserted that Muhammad died not in the year 632 but in the year 666 – the number of the beast – in another variation on the theme the number "666" was also used to represent the period of time Muslims would hold sway of the land.[12] A verbal expression of Christian contempt for Islam was expressed in turning his name from Muhammad to Mahound, the "devil incarnate".[14] Others usually confirmed to pious Christians that Muhammad had come to a bad end.[13] According to one version after falling into a drunken stupor he had been eaten by a herd of swine, and this was ascribed as the reason why Muslims proscribed consumption of alcohol and pork.[13] Leggenda di Maometto is an example of those in which he is taught from childhood the black arts by a heretical Christian villain who escaped imprisonment by the Church to Arabia and set up a false religion by selectively choosing and perverting text from the Bible to create Islam. It also ascribed the Muslim holiday of Friday "dies veneris" (day of Venus) vs. the Jewish (Saturday) and the Christian (Sunday), to his followers' depravity as reflected in their multiplicity of wives.[13] A highly negative depiction of Muhammad as a heretic, false prophet, renegade cardinal, or founder of a violent religion also found its way into many other works of European literature, such as the chansons de geste, William Langland's Piers Plowman, and John Lydgate's The Fall of the Princes.[1]

Muhammad pulling his chest open in William Blake illustration of Dante's Inferno

During the Middle Ages, especially in places where there was frequent Christian-Muslim conflict, it was popular to depict Muhammad being tortured by the demons in Hell. One such example is in Dante's The Divine Comedy in which Muhammad is in the ninth ditch of the eighth circle of hell, the realm for those who have caused schism; specifically, he was placed among the Sowers of Religious Discord. Muhammad is portrayed as split in half, with his entrails hanging out, representing his status as a heresiarch (Canto 28):

No barrel, not even one where the hoops and staves go every which way, was ever split open like one frayed Sinner I saw, ripped from chin to where we fart below.
His guts hung between his legs and displayed His vital organs, including that wretched sack Which converts to shit whatever gets conveyed down the gullet.
As I stared at him he looked back And with his hands pulled his chest open, Saying, "See how I split open the crack in myself! See how twisted and broken Mohammed is! Before me walks Ali, his face Cleft from chin to crown, grief–stricken."[15]
Mohammed tortured in Hell from fresco in San Petronio Basilica

This scene is frequently shown in illustrations of the Divina Commedia. Muhammad is represented in a 15th-century fresco Last Judgement by Giovanni da Modena and drawing on Dante, in the Church of San Petronio, Bologna, Italy,[16] as well as in artwork by Salvador Dalí, Auguste Rodin, William Blake, and Gustave Doré.[17]

One common allegation laid against Muhammad was that he was an impostor who, in order to satisfy his ambition and his lust, propagated religious teachings that he knew to be false.[18] Cultural critic and author Edward Said wrote in Orientalism regarding Dante's depiction of Muhammad:

A more positive interpretation appears in the 13th century Estoire del Saint Grail, the first book in the vast Arthurian cycle, the Lancelot-Grail. In describing the travels of Joseph of Arimathea, keeper of the Holy Grail, the author says that most residents of the Middle East were pagans until the coming of Muhammad, who is shown as a true prophet sent by God to bring Christianity to the region. This mission however failed when Muhammad's pride caused him to alter God's wishes, thereby deceiving his followers. Nevertheless, Muhammad's religion is portrayed as being greatly superior to paganism.[20]

The depiction of Islam in the Travels of Sir John Mandeville is also relatively positive, though with many inaccurate and mythical features. It is said that Muslims are easily converted to Christianity because their beliefs are already so similar in many ways, and that they believe that only the Christian revelation will last until the end of the world. The moral behaviour of Muslims at the time is shown as superior to that of Christians, and as a standing reproach to Christian society.[21]

Other Romantic depictions of Muhammad also began to appear from the 13th century onward, such as in Alexandre du Pont's Roman de Mahom, the translation of the Mi'raj, the Escala de Mahoma (“The Ladder of Muhammad”) by the court physician of Alfonso X of Castile and León and his son.[1]

Medieval European literature often referred to Muslims as "infidels" or "pagans", in sobriquets such as the paynim foe. These depictions such as those in the Song of Roland represent Muslims worshiping Muhammad (spelt e.g. 'Mahom' and 'Mahumet') as a god, and depict them worshiping various deities in the form of "idols", ranging from Apollyon to Lucifer, but ascribing to them a chief deity known as "Termagant".[12][22]

Conversely, in medieval romances such as the French Arthurian cycle, pagans such as the ancient Britons or the inhabitants of "Sarras" before the conversion of King Evelake, who presumably lived well before the birth of Muhammad, are often described as worshipping the same array of gods and as identical to the imagined (Termagant-worshipping) Muslims in every respect. In the same vein, the definition of "Saracen" in Raymond de Peñafort's Summa de Poenitentia starts by describing the Muslims but ends by including every person who is neither a Christian nor a Jew.

When the Knights Templar were being tried for heresy reference was often made to their worship of a demon Baphomet, which was notable by implication for its similarity to the common rendition of Muhammad's name used by Christian writers of the time, Mahomet.[23] All these and other variations on the theme were all set in the "temper of the times" of what was seen as a Muslim-Christian conflict as Medieval Europe was building a concept of "the great enemy" in the wake of the quickfire success of the Muslims through a series of conquests shortly after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, as well as the lack of real information in the West of the mysterious east.[18]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Muhammad." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 10 January 2007, article.
  2. ^   p.14
  3. ^   New Edition, p.231
  4. ^ Walter Emil Kaegi, Jr., "Initial Byzantine Reactions to the Arab Conquest", Church History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (June , 1969), p. 139–149, p. 139–142, quoting from Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati 86–87
  5. ^ Mahomet, among other anglicized forms (such as Mahound), were popular for rendering of the Arabic name Muhammad, borne by the founder of the religion of Islam {died 633). In literary use now superseded by the more correct form Mohammed.
  6. ^ A New English dictionary on historical principles, Volume 6. By Philological Society (Great Britain). Pg 38
  7. ^ Walter Emil Kaegi, Jr., "Initial Byzantine Reactions to the Arab Conquest", Church History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (June , 1969), p. 139–149, p. 139–142
  8. ^ Walter Emil Kaegi, Jr., "Initial Byzantine Reactions to the Arab Conquest", Church History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (June , 1969), p. 139–149, p. 139–141,
  9. ^ An account of the rise and progress of Mahometanism. By Henry Stubbe. Pg 211
  10. ^ The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought. Edited by Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, Hugh Pyper. Pg 330.
  11. ^ Source: "The Fountain of Wisdom" (pege gnoseos), part II: "Concerning Heresy" (peri aipeseon)
  12. ^ a b c d Kenneth Meyer Setton (July 1, 1992). "Western Hostility to Islam and Prophecies of Turkish Doom". DIANE Publishing. ISBN 0-87169-201-5. pg 4-15
  13. ^ a b c d Kenneth Meyer Setton (July 1, 1992). "Western Hostility to Islam and Prophecies of Turkish Doom". DIANE Publishing. ISBN 0-87169-201-5. pg 1–5
  14. ^ Reeves, Minou (2003). Muhammad in Europe: A Thousand Years of Western Myth-Making. NYU Press.  , p.3
  15. ^ Seth Zimmerman (2003). The Inferno of Dante Alighieri. iUniverse. p. 191.  
  16. ^ Philip Willan (2002-06-24). "Al-Qaida plot to blow up Bologna church fresco".  
  17. ^ Ayesha Akram (2006-02-11). "What's behind Muslim cartoon outrage".  
  18. ^ a b Watt, Montgomery, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman. Oxford University Press, 1961. From p. 229.
  19. ^ Said, Edward W (2003). Orientalism. Penguin. p. 68.  
  20. ^ Lacy, Norris J. (Ed.) (December 1, 1992). Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, Volume 1 of 5. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-7733-4.
  21. ^ The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, CHAPTER XV.
  22. ^ Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, "Termagant
  23. ^ Mahomet still is the Polish and French word for the English "Muhammad".



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