Post-classical history

Muhammad (d. 632)

Prophet of Islam, statesman, and lawgiver. Various Muslim leaders and writers invoked the Prophet in their exhortations for jihād (holy war) against the Christians of Outremer and Iberia, particularly in their calls for the conquest of Jerusalem, associated with the tradition of the Prophet’s mirāj (celestial journey). Latin Christians denigrated Muhammad as part of their justification and glorification of the crusaders’ conquest, vilifying him either as an idol, which the Saracen enemy supposedly worshiped, or as a wily heresiarch.

Jerusalem’s association with Muhammad makes it traditionally the third holiest city in Islam. The Qur’ân and Hadith (traditions of the Prophet) tell of how Muhammad and the Muslims faced in the direction of Jerusalem to pray until a revelation ordered them to turn to Mecca. But Muslims associate Muhammad with Jerusalem principally because of the tradition of the mir’āj, associated with Jerusalem by the eighth century: Muhammad was miraculously transported by night from Mecca to Jerusalem, then ascended to heaven (from the place where the Dome of the Rock was subsequently built). Various Muslim authors invoke this association to underline the necessity of Muslim control of Jerusalem. ‘Imād al-Dīn al-Isfahānī describes the purification of the Dome of the Rock by Saladin and the holiness of the place because of its association with the Prophet. The historian Bahā’ al-Dīn ibn Shaddād describes how, during the Third Crusade (1189-1192), forces led by King Richard I of England were advancing on Jerusalem, but Sal- adin prayed at the very spot from which Muhammad had ascended into heaven, and God then caused the Franks to retreat. Bahā’ al-Dīn has Saladin’s brother al-‘Adil explain to Richard that Jerusalem is more sacred to Muslims than to Christians, “for it is the place from which our Prophet accomplished his nocturnal journey and the place where our community will gather (on the day of Judgment)” [Francesco Gabrieli, Arab Historians of the Crusades (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 226]. Muslim chroniclers occasionally tell of how, in the heat of battle, Muhammad, dressed in green, swept down at the head of a celestial army to rout the infidels.

For most of the Latin chroniclers of the First Crusade (1096-1099), Machomet (the Prophet’s name is found deformed in various ways) is the principal God of the “Saracen” enemy. His devotees erect statues of him to which they offer an idolatrous cult reminiscent of classical Roman paganism. Several chroniclers have Saracens offer their captives the choice between martyrdom and worshiping an idol of Machomet. These chroniclers describe in vivid terms golden or silver idols in the enemies’ tents, on the walls of Jerusalem, or even in the Temple of the Lord (i.e., the Dome of the Rock). By presenting the cult of the Saracens as a debauched idolatry devoted to the god Machomet, these chroniclers justify and glorify the Christian reconquest of Jerusalem. This same image of Saracen idolatry is developed in the Chanson de Roland, roughly contemporary with the chronicles of the First Crusade.

Other chroniclers knew better. Guibert of Nogent, in his Dei Gesta per francos (1109), explained that the Saracens did not believe (as some claimed) that “Mathomus” was God, but rather that he was a just and holy man who gave them their law. Guibert presents him as the latest and most nefarious in a long line of oriental heresiarchs. In order to pass himself off as a prophet, Mathomus stages a series of bogus miracles: he trains a dove to eat grains out of his ear and claims it is an angel descended from heaven; he ties the scroll containing his new law to the horns of a cow whose sudden appearance he passes off as a miracle. This debauched law, hailed by the credulous masses, encourages homosexuality, incest, and prostitution. Mathomus receives an appropriate punishment from God: smitten by a sudden epileptic seizure, he falls and is attacked and devoured by pigs. Other Christian authors present Muhammad in the same light, mixing real knowledge of Islam with malicious slander in order to cast the Prophet of Islam as a stereotypical heresiarch. Propagandists such as Fidenzio of Padua deployed this image of Muhammad to paint Islam as essentially hostile to Christian values and hence to justify their calls for new crusades.

According the chronicler Ibn al-Athīr, after Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem, some Franks took back to Europe a painting depicting Muhammad beating a bloodied Christ, in order to incite their comrades to vengeance. Pope Innocent III, in the encyclical Quia maior calling for the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), identified Muhammad with the beast of the Apocalypse and predicted the imminent defeat of the Saracens. Some writers even spoke of a possible crusader attack on Muhammad’s tomb (often erroneously supposed to be the object of Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca). In various of the Old French crusade epics, crusader heroes vow to capture Mecca and destroy the idols of Muhammad that they will supposedly find there. Mecca and Medina were apparently the objects of an abortive raid in the Red Sea, led by Reynald of Châtillon, lord of Transjordan, in 1182-1183. Oliver of Paderborn and James of Vitry tell of a text found in Dami- etta during the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) that predicted the imminent destruction of Muhammad’s tomb at Mecca.

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