Michael Calabrese

title.none: Tolan, Medieval Christian Perceptions of Islam (Calabrese)

identifier.other: baj9928.9709.007 97.09.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Calabrese, California State University, Los Angeles,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Tolan, John Victor, ed. Medieval Christian Perceptions of Islam: A Book of Essays. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, vol. 1768. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996. Pp. xxi, 414. $70.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-815-31426-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.09.07

Tolan, John Victor, ed. Medieval Christian Perceptions of Islam: A Book of Essays. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, vol. 1768. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996. Pp. xxi, 414. $70.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-815-31426-4.

Reviewed by:

Michael Calabrese
California State University, Los Angeles

We don't understand the Bosnians, we don't understand the Chinese and we really don't understand the Iranians (New York Times Magazine 19 September 1997, sec. G, 32).

Thus laments Robert MacNamarra, as he stumbles through the streets of Saigon in search of answers and affirmation in the wake of his agonized, paroxistic confession of ignorance and error during the War in Vietnam. In the real world of geo- politics a failure to understand the "other" can result in the death of millions and in untold and inexpressible misery, as the U.S. has suffered since its failed attempt to inherit the French colonial mantle in Indo-China. No medievalist in the era of cultural studies and in the world post Vietnam, post Gulf War, post Oslo Peace accords, can consider the topic of otherness without recognizing the inter-relatedness of medieval and modern conflicts with the other. But what form should such inquiry take? How similar are the modern industrialized West and the Christian medieval West? How do we avoid potentially naive exercises in "cultural studies" that sound the trumpet of "tolerance" as a clarion fanfare to a mawkish chorus of "We Are the World"?

Tolan's collection approaches these issues only indirectly and implicitly as it digs into medieval religious, literary and political engagement with the Muslim other. Those who know John Tolan from his exactingly scholarly book on Petrus Alfonsus will be pleased at the level of seriousness and responsibility with which the collection proceeds. Tolan is one of the serious players in contemporary critical documentation and assessment of racial and religious relations in the Middle Ages. He is a source you can trust. His current collection of essays on medieval perceptions of Islam, to its credit mainly, offers very little speculation about the relationship between our world and the medieval. It does not attempt to teach or to preach tolerance, dialogue, cultural relativism or any such other sentimental tripe. It stays historically grounded as it attempts to chronicle a series of views, visions, depictions, constructions and analyses of Islam (and pre-Islamic Arab culture) offered by Rome and by the Christian East and West up to the 16th century. It makes little attempt to contemporize or to use the past as a road map or a warning for the present and future. The writers instead are reading and editing obscure or unknown authors and manuscripts, filling in lost pages in the history of East-West relations and helping write the history of western imagination and also basic apprehension of Islam and Islamic people. Much of the work done here is nuts and bolts description of texts and documents, dispassionately offered. Happily the book does not dip into embittered, post-colonial "theory" and does not stride angrily through its subject as an obvious book like Anne McClintock's Imperial Leather tiresomely does.

On the other hand, however, one would have hoped in some places for more hints of the modern relevance and application of the historical inquiry. T. S. Eliot wrote that the average man falls in love and reads Spinoza but never relates the two. I think that the average medievalist today listens to an NPR report on settlements on the West Bank and then reads Vincent of Beauvais and never relates the two. Since contemporary Israeli-Palestinian relations represent in many ways the same East-West conflict--add the United States to the medieval map--it's impossible to dissociate suicide bombings, bulldozers and jihad from the very history that the scholars here are tracing in ancient and medieval times. One exception to the basic approach of the authors is Frank Geary--the only English Professor in the collection--who ends his study of Mandeville with these words about the Gulf war:

The Gulf War of 1991, with its transferring and purchasing of allegiances, its suppression of doctrinal differences in the interest of larger political considerations, the massive amount of information its transactions made available-- indeed unavoidable--in our contemporary media, and the collective presumption in the West that there exists in the Arab world a resource that only the West can properly appreciate and exploit, and must reclaim--nunc oil, olim the sanctity of the Holy land--all this demonstrates not so much Mandeville's prophetic modernity as our own inability to leave the Middle Ages behind.

This is the only such moment in 400 pages, and more such provocative connections would have enlivened the studies without reducing them to the politically correct or historically simplistic or naive. Geary is right about the persistence of medieval construction of the Islam, and medievalists do good service when they reconstruct the history of Western Imagination of the East. If MacNamarra had been more historically informed and had more than a paternalistic perspective on the tiny Asians he planned to save by slaughtering them...oh well.

Tolan restricts his clear introduction to a basic outline of the chapters. One would have hoped here for a fully historical introduction and perhaps justification for the studies. But Tolan takes the low road and avoids any grand, unifying theme or perspective on the essays or on the long history in and behind the studies. Such a study would perhaps be superfluous, and Tolan seems to assume that you would not be coming to this volume without having read Daniel's Islam and the West and Southern's Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages. Tolan thus rightly bills the essays as "a series of vignettes, of discrete examples of medieval Christian perceptions of Islam." He seeks "new, unfamiliar texts" and seeks works that "reflect the wide range of medieval Christian interest in (or preoccupation with) Islam" (xii). Thus he avoids studies of Dante or the Chanson de Roland or other well known works. Tolan succeeds in this, and reading the essays is like reading the footnotes to Islam and the West interactively, clicking on the names of obscure writers and having a short essay or excerpt appear. That is, these vignettes are a series of long "notes" or mini editions on mostly (not Mandeville) unknown and unstudied participants in the West's documentation of Islam.

As Tolan recounts, the essays cover texts in a dozen genres and in a dozen languages. What the book lacks in unity and overall argument it makes up for in variety and breadth. And also, as Tolan does promise, we do witness the "persistence of several key themes" (xii). In fact the reader of these 15 essays will have a difficult time separating the various "perceptions" of Islam, which, despite generic, geographical and chronological diversity, wind up re-rehearsing many of the same chestnuts about Islamic heresy, paganism, or debauchery, and the same fears about invasion corruption and contamination. As one also might expect, some (bright?) moments of tolerance and understanding and even exultation and respect do appear. None of the essays here adds anything radically new to the history of ideology. But they do add well researched, historically sound and solidly documented studies of Western perceptions throughout a variety of times and places and in a variety of political and religious contexts.

Let's survey the contents. Section 1, "Eastern Christian Responses to Islam," contains John C. Lamoreaux's essay, "Early Eastern Christian Responses to Islam," which chronicles the theories, explanations and narrations about the spread of Islam and the defeat of Byzantine forces in 634. Lamoreaux studies religious tolerance and intolerance in the Byzantine empire and the effect of the rise of Islam on the status and hope of religious minorities. He offers background on Roman views of pre-Islamic Arabs and also traces early Christian self-blame at the rise of Islam. This becomes a dominant theme in many of the documents studied here and is familiar to medievalists as part of the Crusade discourse: the cause of Islamic success is Christian moral weakness: God is punishing us for our sins; the Muslims are "temporary divine chastisement" (17).

A similar Christian interpretation of Islam arises in Chapter 2, which moves to the 13th century and the "Syriac and Armenian Christian Responses to the Islamification of the Mongols" by David Bundy. Working from contemporary histories, Bundy argues that both Armenian and Syriac Christians saw the Islamification of the invaders they had been forced to capitulate to as displaying an "abandonment by God": "It is their national and personal sin which has led to the disaster" (48). These Christian minorities had had hopes that the Mongol invaders, who had Christians in their ranks, would restore religious freedom that they did not have under Islamic rule in Mesopotamia and the Caucasus. The Islamification of the Mongols dashed these hopes.

Chapter 3 focuses on a less global and more legalistic episode of 13th-century history, "Manuel I Comnenus and the 'God of Mohammed': A Study in Byzantine Ecclesiastical Politics," by Craig L. Hanson. This confusingly complex but interesting story tells of the Emperor's attempt to eliminate one article in the formula of abjuration which would have attributed to the converting Muslims a materialistic view of God. The Emperor's position seems to come from a desire to insure that converting Muslims not be offended and not offend God in the act of conversion. Also the Emperor's argument would contribute to the recognition that Islam is a heresy within Christianity, not a pagan doctrine with a physical conception of the godhead. The Emperor wins the debate and "the common monotheism of Islam and Christianity [was] recognized, and the conversion process made less objectionable to Muslims" (75). Readers will enjoy the wild fight that rages over the polemical translation of "samad" (solid, massive) as "made of solid, hammer beaten metal" which lies at the heart of the debate. [Readers will also note the accidental repetition of a long quotation on pp. 72 and 74.]

Section 2 focuses on "Spanish Anti-Muslim Polemic: Eighth to Twelfth Centuries." Kenneth Baxter Wolf uses the example of Andelusian Spain as he seeks to broaden our apprehension of East-West relations by contextualizing the Western or Christian observer historically. He's interested in the "mental categories that Christians had at their disposal for framing something like Islam" arguing that "from a medieval Christian perspective, Islam was only one species of a genus that included every perceived threat to Christendom from the beginning of Christian history" (86). The eighth-century Spanish chronicles, Wolf writes, did not identify the Muslims religiously but rather militarily or ethnically. Eventually concerns over assimilation prompt in the late 8th and 9th centuries a body of anti-Islamic polemics, fueled in part by the Christians dying in the so-called "Cordoban martyrs movement." Wolf then discusses the works of Eulogius and Alvarus who variously apply the terms "heresiarch, antichrist and false prophet" to Mohammed (100). Within the polemic, Wolf notes a tendency we have been tracing already: Christians want to recognize Muslims as fellow peoples of the book and to see Islam more as heresy "than as an entirely separate and rival system" (100).

In "'Tathlith al-wahdaniyah' and the Twelfth-Century Andalusian-Christian approach to Islam," Thomas E. Burman studies how Christians gained first-hand scholarly experience of Muslim texts, for example not just the Qur'an but the rarer Hadith (a vast body of supplementary material to the Qur'an) in order to compose their own anti-Muslim polemics. The Christians also display a learned knowledge of Christian doctrine and literature, revealing finally "the remarkably multi-cultural and multi-lingual nature of the Andalusian- Christian intellectual milieu" (120). Having edited the Book of Denuding, one such intellectual product now preserved in a Latin translation from Arabic, Burman is in a good position to expose the "concrete steps taken by the Andalusian Christians to gain knowledge of Islam" (111).

Section 3, "Theological Responses to Islam: Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries," begins with David Burr's study of the role of the Muslims in Franciscan Apocalyptic exegesis. Writers such as Joachim of Fiore, Olivi and Nicholas of Lyra assign, however inconsistently, some pernicious role to the Muslims in the coming apocalypse. It's actually comic to read the various theories about Islam and Mohammed here. Is he antichrist or just the beast from the land? Will Islam last 666 years? If so, when should we have started counting? It makes sense, says Burr, that Christians could see Muslims as a divine chastisement, much as the Assyrians and the Babylonians were, but Christians seem puzzled by the "remarkable staying power" (Burr's fine phrase!) of the Muslims which, to Christian exegetes, suggests that "they were destined to play a major apocalyptic role." But this is not all bookish: the fall of crusader kingdoms in real time certainly contributes to the concern. Chapter 7 follows up on these concerns with essentially more detailed "notes" on three medieval exegetes: Nicholas of Lyra, Paul of Burgos and Juan of Segovia, including lots of Latin in the footnotes from the 1634 edition of Lyra. Philip Krey, like all Tolan's authors, displays solid textual and bibliographical skills.

In "Frederick II, His Saracens, and the Papacy," John Philip Lomax traces the confusing and often petty struggle between the Pope and Emperor with specific reference to the most obscure item in the bull of excommunication of 1239 blaming Frederick for the profanation of churches by Muslims under Frederick's protection in Lucera in Italy. As Lomax reveals, the papacy was ultimately less concerned with the Saracens per se than with Frederick's rejection of the papacy's crusading ideal and with his "imperialistic policies " that "seemed to threaten the papacy and the entire church" (176). Thus the Muslim settlement becomes a pawn in the larger game of papal and imperial politics.

Chapter 9 offers William Patrick Hyland's introductory note and a first edition and translation of John-Jerome of Prague's Miraculum noviter factum (c.1430) recounting the trial and ultimate vindication of falsely accused Christian merchants traveling in Arabia. The text is not bound to make us reassess our view of Christian-Islamic relations but, as one of Tolan's promised vignettes, it does play its part in the history of the depictions of the Muslim other that the book traces. And again, Hyland has gone directly to a previously un-edited source. Tolan's authors are short on theory and long on primary texts, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Section 4, Islam in Western Vernacular Literature, starts with an essay by Geert H. M. Claassens on the 13th-century Flemish poet Jacob van Maerlant, whose Spiegal Historiael combines clerical and literary traditions in its depiction of Islam. Claassens struggles with English, and the prose here is stilted and garbled. This essay needed more aggressive editing, but it nonetheless displays how a vernacular writer, so far from the "Arab-European borderlines, unlocked his knowledge--knowledge which was, from our point of view, far from accurate, but which his critical mind deemed truthful--for an audience of illiterati" (232).

Gloria Allaire's "Portrayal of Muslims in Andrea de Barberino's Guerrino il Meschino" studies the complex, non-polemical depictions of Muslims in a 15th-century Italian prose romance. Though the work is influenced by the chivalric tradition, it reads often like a travel account and displays a sense of verisimilitude and "naturali[sm]" (244). And though the work repeats much inherited lore about Islam--that Muslims worship Mohammed as God, they are hairy and primitive--it also includes a rare, accurate description of a mosque and in many places displays racial and cultural tolerance. Allaire does not mention it, but this reviewer wondered if Marco Polo's travels, which display a similar moral neutrality at many points along the journey to Arabia and beyond, may have influenced Andrea. Allaire's conclusion that "In Guerrino, despite the lingering presence of conventional antipathies, a new spirit emerges that does indeed make possible revisionary literary depictions of Muslims based on tolerance and understanding" (260) overstates the case. But her work with this obscure romance is nonetheless convincing and does indeed reveal that vernacular texts do not just rehearse theological polemical conventions.

Frank Grady's "'Machomete' and Mandeville's Travels" is the best written of the essays (no bias toward the lone English Professor in the troop). "Even cannibals can mean well in M's Travels," writes Grady playfully, as he takes us through some of the important ironies and dualities of M's depictions of the Muslims, who serve often as a virtuous touchstone to a depraved Christian world. Grady theorizes about the function of M's well known exultation of the Muslims, with specific reference to the Muslim's own prophecies of their eventual surrender of the Holy Land to morally reformed (coming soon?) Christians.

The recourse to prophecy allows the author of the Travels to assert the moral successes of the virtuous heathen while containing them within a larger Christian context...speculation about the inevitable...demise of Islam not only diminishes the urgency of the call for a also reduces the duty of Christians interested in the intractable problem of the Saracens to mere maintenance of the orthodox faith, which is bound to triumph by its very nature.... All a good Christian really has to do is not become a Saracen (278).

Grady's essay concludes the section on the vernacular, which I think is the strongest section of the book, though this may reflect nothing more than my preference for romance over history and polemic.

The final section focuses on the 16th century, starting with John S. Geary's study of the imperial propagandist Gonzalo de Arrendondo y Alvarado, a Spanish Benedictine abbot, who wrote, at the behest of Charles V, the Castillo inexpugnable de la fee (1528) in an attempt to "expose the heresy of Islam and to motivate Europe's Christian princes to formulate and enact a course of action designed to halt the spread of the maldicta secta mahometana and its tenets" (291). The dialogue features much inherited anti-Muslim polemic, such as the depiction of Turks as sexual beasts, as it attempts to rouse support for Christians against the Turks and Suleyman the Magnificent, whose victory at Mohacs "intensified the concern of the Habsburg dynasty with the collapse of the eastern frontier between Christianity and Islam" (294). Geary concludes that "the kind of support that Arrendondo so zealously sought for his emperor in the wake of the first Hungarian campaign was not forthcoming despite his appeal to medieval crusading traditions." And the text takes its place in the history of the "ultimate failure to restore the old Holy Roman Empire" (305).

In Chapter 15 Rhona Zaid discusses Las Guerras civiles de Granada (c.1568) by the historian Gines Perez de Hita, known by some as "Spain's first historical novelist." Las Guerras recounts the rebellion of the Alpujarras, fully suppressed by Philip II in 1571, with 60,000 Moriscos killed and thousands more sold into slavery. Zaid focuses on Las Guerras because of the author's "blatant Morisco sympathies as well as his almost protopacifistic sentiments, both unorthodox attitudes for any Golden Age writer" (314). His work offers "detailed and colorful descriptions of the Moorish customs and culture" (316) and portrayals of Moorish suffering that display "his evident compassion for the Moors as a disinherited race" (319). Zaid speculates that if Perez were not well connected politically he would have been prosecuted by the Inquisition for treason. Zaid ultimately does not romanticize Perez's sympathy but does display exactly to what extent he "broke with existing literary conventions" (328).

The final, rather exciting, chapter is Palmira Brummett's "Myth of Shah Ismail Safavi: Political Rhetoric and 'Divine' Kingship," which traces the Christian heroicization of Ismail Safavi, who rose to power with claims of universal Islamic sovereignty in the early years of the 16th century. Christians depicted him as a warrior savior, "an enemy of Turks and Muslims, and a friend of Christians" (335). Brummett notes that based on the way "information" traveled "Ismail would be long dead in his grave before European diplomatic missions would begin to flesh out information on the Safavid state" (333), indicating that we are dealing with the wishful construction of a legendary "other." One thinks of Prester John as an archetype of pro-Christian savior, and of Alexander the Great as "unstoppable force--the world hegemon who either claimed divinity or was granted it by his troops." But of the three I think only Ismail was said to have a miraculous cat as councilor (338-9). Ismail, the hoped for "man to stop the Turks" (340) was finally defeated by the Ottomans in 1514, and his mythic status waned. Brummett then offers some keen ideological speculations on the literary, political, religious and ideological foundations for the creation of the god-king, particularly with reference to 16th-century European apprehension of Islam and the "other." She studies how economic (trade) concerns led Europeans to make distinctions between Islamic nations and groups, to "differentiate" the Muslim world in order to form useful alliances, trading partnerships and buffer zones. So once the Shah Ismail became "a Christ-like figure: celebrating Easter, distributing his wealth, and inspiring his followers to martyrdom," this "elaboration of [his] mythology served the practical purpose of justifying negotiations with a Muslim state" (351). Such contextualization helps us understand the motivations for the "myth of Ismail Safavi."

It is a fine and provocative coda to the volume, and though Brummett does not so speculate, the reader cannot help but want to read some 20th-century history in light of her argument. Americans will be reminded of our relationship to yet another Shah, that of Iran, of our recent rejoicing at the election of a "moderate" government there, and of a host of other events where hope, fear, hatred and greed mix with ideology to form complex or inconsistent foreign policy toward the Islamic "other." As George Bush said of American arms deals to Iraq, "We tried to welcome Sadam Hussain into the family of nations." The book for the most part leaves these trans-historical comparisons and associations up to the reader. But clearly, the forces that shaped the myth of Ismail are still at work, or so this reader concludes from reading not only Brummett's essay but all of Tolan's detailed and deeply informative collection. Tolan writes no afterward or summary wrap up or meditative final thoughts. But quietly the book has invited us to consider the contemporary and future implications of the solid textual and historical analysis that these fifteen "vignettes" offer. Tolan has revealed, as promised, endless evidence of the West's "fascination de l'Islam" (xx).