Christian-Muslim understanding in the later Middle Ages

(Richard Fletcher)

In 1396 a Crusading army, possibly the largest ever assembled, set off under the command of King Sigismund of Hungary to halt the advance into Europe of the Ottoman Turks. The crusaders' route lay down the valley of the Danube into the Balkans. In what is today northern Bulgaria they settled down to besiege the strategically important town of Nicopolis. There they were surprised by a Turkish relieving force and comprehensively defeated. The most ambitious crusading expedition of the later Middle Ages had ended in
humiliating failure.

Among those who set themselves to ponder this reverse was a Provencal
diplomat named Honorat Bouvet who was moved to embody his reflections in a poem. In it he identified the moral shortcomings of Christendom as conduct displeasing to God: divine displeasure had been responsible for the catastrophe. There was nothing new here: clerical moralists had been accounting for crusading failures in this manner since the time of St Bernard nearly three centuries earlier. What was new, however, was that in Bouvet's poem the diagnostician was not a Christian but a Muslim, and that some of his diagnosis took the form of a comparison between Christian and Muslim societies in favour of the latter. For example, wrote Bouvet, Christians had gone soft through self-indulgence, while Muslims had been made tough by
austerity. Now, the literary device of using the outsider as critic involves thinking neutrally or benevolently about that outsider and his views. If Bouvet was better disposed towards the Muslim enemy than we might expect in crusading circles, then we need to ask what other circles there were, what other approaches to Islam were available to late medieval Europeans? What is striking is their diversity and modernity.

For the first five centuries or so since the earliest, and most traumatic, encounter between Christendom and Islam in the second quarter of the seventh century, Christian attitudes to Islam had been compounded of ignorance, misperception, hostility and fear. It was from this cocktail--as also from other impulses internal to western Christendom-that the way of military confrontation which we call the Crusades had emerged. A fluke success, the capture of Jerusalem by the armies of the First Crusade in 1099, had been followed by a steady record of failure. Although hopes remained high and the
crusading impulse still had vigorous life, it must have been apparent to clear-sighted observers long before the Nicopolis campaign that the Holy Places never would be repossessed for Christendom.

An alternative approach was a missionary one: the attempt peacefully to convert Muslims to Christianity. Growing out of the twelfth-century reform of the Western Church with its stress on preaching to the dissident who had erred, this approach was particularly cultivated in Spain, where the territorial Reconquista, or `Reconquest' of those large parts of the Iberian Peninsula under Islamic rule, was advancing by leaps and bounds. The process brought
enormous numbers of Muslims under Christian rule, thus raising in an acute form the bewildering challenges of managing a multicultural society. Many people rose to these challenges. Take, for example, the Majorcan polymath Ramon Lull (1232-1315), knight, poet, novelist, mystic, traveller, self-publicist, lobbyist and the tireless author of over 200 works. Lull learned Arabic, set up a school in Majorca for the training of missionaries, and at the ecumenical council of Vienne in 1311 persuaded the assembled churchmen to found schools at the universities of Pads, Oxford, Bologna and Salamanca in which not only the Arabic language but also the history, theology and
philosophy of Islam were to be studied. Lull met his death practising what he preached, stoned to death at an advanced old age while attempting to preach the Gospel in Tunisia.

At first sight these thirteenth-century initiatives were not wholly unprecedented. Back in the 1140s Abbot Peter the Venerable of Cluny had commissioned the earliest translation of the Koran into Latin. But Peter's motive was polemic, not enquiry; the Koran was to be refuted, not studied for its own sake. A century later we begin to breathe a subtly different atmosphere. By this date Western Christendom had gained access, by means of translation from Arabic into Latin, to a great deal of the scientific and philosophical learning of the Islamic word. The need to study Islamic religious
culture as well--perhaps primarily for missionary purposes--little by little compelled awareness that the Islamic faith was different. Traditionally regarded as a deviant form of Christianity, a heresy which could be refuted, Islam could now be seen as a religion in its own right. The slow dawning of the notion of a plurality of religious cultures in the world was a breakthrough in Western intellectual development whose significance can scarcely be exaggerated. It is no coincidence that it started to occur in the era (c.1250-1320) of the missions to the Mongols and of the travels of the Polo family in
China, which opened up vastly different places, peoples and customs to the wondering eyes of Europeans.

The intellectual initiatives of Lull and his contemporaries eventually foundered. But his spiritual descendants can be discerned in two figures who lived a couple of centuries after his time. John of Segovia (d.1458) was another Spaniard, a professor of theology at Salamanca who was sent by his university to represent it at the long-running ecclesiastical council of Basle between 1433 and 1449. John wanted to revitalise the academic study of Islam and to this end edited a new, trilingual version of the Koran in Arabic, Latin and Castilian. He hoped that on the basis of renewed study Christian
intellectuals would be enabled to engage in peaceful and constructive dialogue with their Muslim counterparts. The forum for these exchanges was to be a prolonged academic conference. The prospect of dons jawing on never-endingly may not appeal to every taste, but the spirit John sought to foster was surely a positive one. He looked for points of contact between Christianity and Islam, rather than stressing the differences. Convergence, not divergence, was John's watchword. It is an approach that those who concern themselves today with inter-faith dialogue find attractive.

John's contemporary Nicholas of Cusa (d.1464) in some ways went even further down this path. In his work Cribratio Alcorani (`Sieving the Koran') he argued that if the Koran is intensively studied in the proper spirit (`sieved') it will be found to be compatible with the teaching of the New Testament. Beneath discrepancies and divergences there lay a shared basis of belief. In another work Nicholas was even more adventurous. The argument of Docta Ignorantia (`Learned Ignorance') was that ultimate truth is inaccessible to the human intellect. Wisdom lies in acknowledging ignorance. Truth may be
apprehended only by mystical intuition. Although Nicholas never asserted this in so many words, he came close to the view that ways to God exist which are independent of confessional allegiance. If a Christian mystic could find God, could not a Muslim sufi also? Distant perspectives were opened up by these speculations, paths down which some of the most daring minds of the Renaissance and later epochs would advance (sometimes at their peril).

Looking at Christian responses to Islam in the later Middle Ages one can discern a range of attitudes towards the problem of what in Spain was called convivencia, the `living side by side' of communities of different culture. In practice, this co-existence was often fragile and brittle, marked by ugly social and institutional prejudice, punctuated by outbreaks of almost ritual and oddly stabilising violence. Yet there were those who sought constructive alternatives to confrontation, peaceful means of resolving conflict. These later
medieval experiments shaped, to a degree still insufficiently appreciated, the European approaches to the extra-European world.

In all this, there is an important and puzzling contrast with the culture of the Islamic world. Its travellers and scholars were simply not interested in Christendom. Consider these two examples. Ibn Batutah (d.1378) was one of the most active travellers who has ever lived. For thirty-odd years he was almost continuously on the move. From his native north Africa he made the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, four times; he ranged west to the Atlantic, east to China and Java, southward down the coast of east Africa and across the Sahara to the Muslim kingdom of Mali. The journals of his travels occupy five volumes. Yet never once, it seems, did it occur to him that he might visit European Christendom.

Ibn Khaldun (d.1406), another north African, had a distinguished career as bureaucrat, diplomat and religious judge but is best remembered, and deservedly, for his historical writings. As a historian he displayed an original and penetrating intelligence. His great contribution lay in the emphasis he placed on what today would be called environmental causation: habitat has effects upon the culture, broadly defined, of the peoples who inhabit it. The
historian can discern regular patterns and sequences, and thereby identify laws governing social development which are operative in societies of similar character, however distant in space or time. Ibn Khaldun's insights remain extraordinarily fresh and thought-provoking. But they were confined to the Islamic world, to a single civilisation (however diversely textured and extensive). In a revealing aside he let drop that he had `heard rumours' that
philosophy and science were flourishing in Christian Europe: `but God knows best what goes on in those parts'. No more than Ibn Batutah did he want to know about the Christian West.

If these observers had taken a look at Christendom they would have found much to ponder. As it was, when a European world hegemony began to be put in place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the world of Islam was taken unawares--and that unawareness in turn has had the most unhappy consequences which we are still living with. Why was it that Islam, which had earlier been so receptive to the learning of the Hellenistic, Persian and Indian cultures and so original and resourceful in developing and building upon them, displayed so lamentably closed a mind to the technological,
mercantile and political advances which transformed Western Europe from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries? It's a very important question. It has never yet been satisfactorily answered.