Roots of Misconception: From Theological Rivalry to Cultural Differentiation: Perceptions of Islam D

Ibrahim Kalin

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From Theological Rivalry to Cultural Differentiation:
Perceptions of Islam During the Middle Ages

As a new dispensation from Heaven, which claimed to have completed the cycle of Abrahamic revelations, Islam was seen as a major challenge for Christianity from the outset. References to Jewish and Christian Prophets, stories and other themes in the Qurn and the Prophetic traditions (hadith), sometimes concurring with and sometimes diverging from the Biblical accounts, contributed to the sense of consternation and insecurity on the one hand, and to the urgency of responding to the Islamic claims of authenticity, on the other. The earliest polemics between Muslim scholars and Christian theologians attest to the zeal of the two communities to defend their faiths against one another. Baghdad and Syria from the 8th through 10th centuries were the two main centers of intellectual exchange and theological polemics between Muslims and Christians. Even though theological rivalry is a constant of this period, many ideas were exchanged on philosophy, logic, and theology, which went beyond theological bickering. In fact, Eastern Christian theologians posed a serious 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. It is thus important to note here that the reception of Islam as a religious challenge for Christianity was not because Islam was different or claimed to be a new religion. On the contrary, the message of Islam was too similar to both Judaism and Christianity in its essential outlook in spite of the Qur楦nic criticisms of certain Judaic and Christian beliefs.

The other important factor was the rapid spread of Islam into areas that had been previously under Christian rule. Within a century after the conquest of Mecca, Islam had already spread outside the Arabian peninsula, bringing with it the conversion of large numbers of people in areas extending from Egypt and Jerusalem to Syria, the Caspian sea and North Africa. While Jews and Christians were granted religious freedom as the People of the Book (ahl al-kitb) under Islamic law and did not face conversion by force, the unexpected pace with which Islam spread sent alarms to those living in Western Christendom.  A few centuries later, this very fact would be used as a base for launching the Crusades against Muslims. Furthermore, the westward march of Muslim armies under the banner of the Umayyads, the Abbasids and then the Ottomans added to the sense of urgency until the decline of the Ottoman Empire as a major political force in the Balkans and the Middle East. The spread of Islam, which was a riddle for many European Christians, was attributed to two main reasons: the spread of the religion by the sword and the Prophet奒s appealing to mans animal desires through polygamy and concubines. As we shall see below in the words of the 17th century traveler George Sandys, the simplicity of the Islamic faith was occasionally added to this list, referring, in a quasi-racist way, to the simple-mindedness of Muslim converts (1).

The combination of Islam as a religion with its own theological premises on the one hand, and the expansion of Muslim borders in such a short period of time, on the other, played a key role in shaping the anti-Islamic sentiment of the Middle Ages. No one single figure can illustrate this situation better than St. John of Damascus (c. 675-749) known in Arabic as Yuhanna 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 the ғSaracens. In all likelihood, this pejorative name, used for Muslims in most of the anti-Islamic polemics, goes back to St. John himself (2).  St. JohnԒs polemics, together with those of Bede (d. 735) and Theodore Abu-Qurrah (d. 820 or 830) (3) against Islam as an essentially Christian heresy or, to use St. Johns own words, as the ғheresy of the Ishmaelites, set the tone for medieval perceptions of Islam and continued to be a major factor until the end of the Renaissance (4).  In fact, most of the theological depictions concerning Islam as a ԑdeceptive superstition of the Ishmaelites and a ґforerunner of the Antichrist(5)  go back to St. John. Moreover, St. John was also the first Christian polemicist to call the Prophet of Islam an impostor and a false prophet: ғMuhammad, the founder of Islam, is a false prophet who, by chance, came across the Old and New Testament and who, also, pretended that he encountered an Arian monk and thus he devised his own heresy.(6)

What is important about St. JohnԒs anti-Islamic polemics is that he had a direct knowledge of the language and ideas of Muslims, which was radically absent among his followers in the West.(7)  R. W. Southern has rightly called this the historical problem of ChristianityӔ vis—vis Islam in the Middle Ages, viz., the 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 heretical offshoot of Christianity.(8)  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, resulting in the forging of Islam 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 10th centuries on mostly theological grounds. Even though the anti-Islamic Byzantine literature displays considerable first-hand knowledge of Islamic faith and practices (9), including specific criticisms of some verses of the Qurথn, the perception of Islam as a theological rival and heresy was its leitmotif and provided a solid historical and theological basis for later critiques of Islam.(10)

If deliberate ignorance was the cherished strategy of the period, the out-and-out rejection of Islam as a theological challenge was no less prevalent. The Qurnic assertion of Divine unity without the Trinity, the countenance of Jesus Christ as God楒s prophet divested of divinity, and the presence of a religious community without clergy and a church-like authority were some of the challenges that did not go unnoticed in Western Christendom. Unlike Eastern Christianity, which had a presence in the midst of the Muslim world and better access to the Islamic faith, the image of Islam in the West was relegated to an unqualified heresy and regarded as no different than paganism or the Manichaenism from which St. Augustine had his historical conversion to Christianity. In contrast to Spain 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, myths, and tropes brought by the Crusaders. Paradoxically, the Crusades did not bring any new or more reliable knowledge about Islam but instead reinforced its image as paganism and idolatry. There was, however, one very important consequence of the Crusades insofar as the medieval perceptions of Islam are concerned.

The Crusaders, it is to be noted, were the first Western Christians to go into 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 (Salh al-Din al-Ayyubi), the conqueror of Jerusalem, but also the stories of Muslim life, its promiscuity, its wealth and luxury, and such goods and commodities as silk, paper, and incense. Combined with popular imagery, these stories and imported goods, presenting a world immersed in the luxuries of worldly life, confirmed the wicked nature呒 of the heresy of the Ishmaelites. Although the subdued sense of admiration tacit in these stories did very little to ameliorate the image of Islam, it opened a new door of perception for it as a culture and civilization. In this way, Islam, vilified on purely religious and theological grounds, came to possess a neutral value as a culture, 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 Renaissance Europe towards Islam: it 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. This was the translation of the Qurn 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.(11)  As expected, the motive for the translation was not to gain a better understanding of Islam by reading its sacred scripture but to better know the enemy. In fact, Peter the Venerable explained his reasons for the undertaking of the translation of the Qur楦n as follows:

If this work seems superfluous, since the enemy is not vulnerable to such weapons as these, I answer that in the Republic of the great King some things are for defense, others for decoration, and some for both. Solomon the Peaceful made arms for defense, which were not necessary in his own time. David made ornaments for the Temple though there was no means of using them in his day So it is with this work. If the Moslems cannot be converted by it, at least it is right for the learned to support the weaker brethren in the Church, who are so easily scandalized by small things.(12)

Regardless of the intention behind it, the translation of the Qur兦n 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 to build many of their anticipated criticisms.(13)  Parallel with this was an event that proved to be even more alarming: introduction of the Prophet of Islam into the Christian imagery of medieval Europe. Although St. John of Damascus was the first to call the Prophet of Islam a false prophet呒, before the 11th century there were hardly any references to Mahometђ as a major figure in the anti-Islamic literature. 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 time.

This portrayal of the Prophet of Islam suffered from the same historical problem of medieval Europe to which we have referred, namely the lack of knowledge of Islam based on original sources, texts, first-hand accounts, and reliable histories. It is a 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 with any degree of proficiency. We may well remember Roger Bacons complaint that Louis XI could not find a person to translate an Arabic letter of the Sultan of Egypt and write back to him in his language.(14)  In fact, the official teaching of Arabic in a European university would not take place until the second part of the 16th century when Arabic began to be taught regularly at the CollҨge de France in Paris in 1587. Nevertheless, the first work ever to appear on the Prophet in Latin was Embrico of Mainzs (d. 1077) Vita Mahumeti, culled mostly from Byzantine sources and embellished with profligate details about the ProphetҒs personal and social life.(15)  The picture that emerged 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 a fulfillment of the Biblical promise of the anti-Christ. As expected, the theological concerns of this period shunned any appeal to reliable scholarship for the next two centuries, preempting the creation of a less belligerent image of the Prophet.

Almost all of the Latin works that have survived on the Prophets life had one clear goal: to show the impossibility of such a man as Muhammad to be GodҒs messenger. This is exceedingly clear in the picture with which we are presented. The prophets ґthis-worldly qualities as opposed to the ґother-worldly nature of Jesus Christ was a constant theme. The Prophet was given to sex and political power, both of which he used, the Latins reasoned, to oppress his followers and 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 for Europeans 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 medieval predecessors by calling the Prophet a ґpsychopath in his extremely polemical Life of Mohammed. Many other details can be mentioned here including the ProphetҒs having a Christian background, that his dead body was eaten and desecrated by pigs or that he was baptized secretly just before his death as a last attempt to save his soul.(16)

The foregoing image of the Prophet of Islam was an extension of the unwavering rejection of the Qurn as authentic revelation. In fact, once the Prophet had been portrayed as a possessed and hallucinatory spirit, it was more convincing in the eyes of the opponents for the Qur楦n to be attributed 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呒 religion and Jesus Christ the embodiment of the word of God, the Latin critics accorded a similar role to Muhammad in the religious universe of Islam: one could not understand and reject the message of Islam without its messenger. At any rate, the rejection of the Qurn as the word of God and the representation of the Prophet as a possessed spirit and magician immersed in the lusts of the inferior world stayed with the Western perception of Islam into the modern period. Perhaps the most disturbing outcome of this 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 thanks to the indefatigable work of such scholars as Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ismail Raji al-Faruqi, Kenneth Cragg and John Hicks(17), we are still not prepared to speak with confidence of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition by which Islam can be seen within the same religious universe as the two other Abrahamic faiths.  The absence of such a discourse reinforces the medieval perceptions of Islam as a heretic and pagan faith, and thwarts the likelihood of generating a more inclusive picture of Islam on primarily religious grounds.
1. These usual explanations for the spread of Islam were prevalent even among such American writers of the 19th century as Edward Forster, John Hayward, and George Bush, the first American biographer of the Prophet. See Fuad Sha楒ban, Islam and Arabs in Early American Thought: The Roots of Orientalism in America (North Carolina: The Acorn Press, 1991), pp. 40-43.

2. According to Oleg Grabar, the term Saracenђ comes from the word Sarakenoiђ: John of Damascus and others after him always insisted on the fact that the new masters of the Near East are Ishmaelites, that is, outcasts; and it is with this implication that the old term Sarakenoi is explained as meaning “empty (because of or away from?) of Sarah (ek tes Sarras kenous) and that the Arabs are often called Agarenois, obviously in a pejorative sense.Ӕ Oleg Grabar, The Umayyad Dome Of The Rock In JerusalemӔ Ars Orientalis, 1959, 3, p. 44.

3. For Theodore Abu-Qurrah and extracts from his writings against Islam, see Adel-Theodore Khoury, Les Thologiens Byzantins et LIslam: Textes et Auteurs (Louvain: Editions Nauwelaerts, 1969), pp. 83-105.

4. Bede was the first theologian to label the Saracens as enemies of God in his biblical commentaries. This was important for finding a place for the Saracens in the Christian version of biblical history.

5. Daniel J. Sahas, John of Damascus on Islam: The 钓Heresy of the Ishmaelites (Ledien: E. J. Brill, 1972), p. 68.

6. De Hearesibus, 764B, quoted in Sahas, ibid., p. 73.

7. For St. JohnԒs career in Syria under the Umayyad caliphate, see Sahas, pp. 32-48.

8. R. W. Southern, Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 3.

9. As Kedar points out, this was a result of the daily interaction of Eastern Christian with Muslims. See his Crusade and Mission: European Attitudes toward the Muslims (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 35f.

10. Some of the anti-Islamic texts produced by Byzantine theologians have been collected in Adel-Theodore Khoury, Les Thologiens Byzantins et LIslam where one can follow the representative texts of such theologians as St. John of Damascus, Theodore Abu-Kurra, Theophane the Confessor, Nicetas of Byzantium, and George Hamartolos.

11. On Ketton钒s translation see Marie-Thrse d騒Alverny, Deux Traductions Latines du Coran au Moyen AgeӔ Archives dhistoire doctrinale et littҩraire du Moyen Age 16 (Paris: Librairie J. Vrin, 1948) published in her La connaissance de lIslam dans lҒOccident mdival (Great Britain: Variorum, 1994), I, pp. 69-131 where d驒Alverny also analyzes Mark of Toledos Latin translation completed shortly after that of Ketton. See also James Kritzeck, ғRobert of Kettons Translation of the QurҒan, Islamic Quarterly, II: 4 (1955), pp. 309-312.

12. Quoted in Southern, ibid., pp. 38-9. In spite of his deliberate anti-Islamic campaign, Peter the Venerable ushered in a new era in the European studies of Islam in the Middle Ages. See James Kritzeck, Peter the Venerable and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), pp. 24-36.

13. Cf. Kenneth M. Setton, Western Hostility to Islam and Prophecies of Turkish Doom (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1991), pp. 47-53.

14. Cf. James Windrow Sweetman, Islam and Christian Theology, part 2, vol. 1 (London: Lutterworth, 1955), pp. 98-99.  Marie-Thԩrse dAlverny draws attention to the same problem in her important essay 蒓La connaissance de lIslam en Occident du IXe au milieu de XIIe siҩcle Settimane di studio del Centro italiano di studi sullԒalto medioevo 12, LOccidente e lҒIslam nellalto medioevo, Spoleto 2-8 aprile 1964, col. II Spoleto, 1965 published in La connaissance de lҒIslam dans lOccident medieval, V, pp. 577-8.

15. Southern mentions two other works of equal importance. The first is Walter of CompiegneҒs Otia de Machomete written between 1137 and 1155, and the second Guibert of Nogents Gesta Dei per Francos, composed at the beginning of the 12th century, which is an account of the Crusades with a chapter devoted to the Prophet of Islam. Cf. Southern, ibid., p. 30.

16. For more on the image of the Prophet of Islam in the West from the middle ages and the Renaissance up to the present, see Clinton Bennett, In Search of Muhammad (Cassell: London & New York, 1998), pp. 69-92 and 93-135; and Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Oxford: Oneworld, 1993; first published in 1960), pp. 100-130. For a critical evaluation of three Orientalist scholars on the Prophet of Islam, see Jabal Muhammad Buaben, Image of the Prophet Muhammad in the West: A Study of Muir, Margoliouth and Watt (Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1996).

17. Cf. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred (Albany, NY: State University New York Press, 1989), pp. 280-308; ғComments on a Few Theological Issues in Islamic-Christian Dialogue in Christian-Muslim Encounters, Yvonne and Wadi Haddad (eds.), (Florida: Florida University Press, 1995), pp. 457-467; and ԓIslamic-Christian Dialogues: Problems and Obstacles to be Pondered and Overcome, Muslim World, No. 3-4 (July-October, 1998), pp. 218-237; Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret (New York: Orbis Books, 1989, 2nd printing; first published in 1956) and Muhammad and the QurԦn: A Question of Response (New York: Orbis Books, 1984); Ismail Raji al-Faruqi (ed.), Trialogue of the Abrahamic Faiths (Herndon, VA: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1982). See also Frithjof Schuon, Christianity/Islam: Essays on Esoteric Ecumenism (Bloomington: World Wisdom Books, 1985).


Originally published in “Roots of Misconception: Euro-American Perceptions of Islam Before and After September 11th” in Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition ed. by Joseph Lumbard (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2004), pp. 143-187

First published online at

This article may be found on the webpage of Ibrahim Kalin at 

Ibrahim Kalin is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA


Roots of Misconception (Introduction and 4 parts), Ibrahim Kalin:

Euro-American Perceptions of Islam Before and After 9/11 - INTRODUCTION
From Theological Rivalry to Cultural Differentiation: Perceptions of Islam During the Middle Ages
From the Middle Ages through the Modern Period: The European Discovery of Islam as a World Culture
The 19th Century Perceptions of Islam: From the Pilgrim to the Orientalist
The Legacy of Orientalism and the New World: Islam as the Other呒 of America?