Polemics are theological texts that seek to attack, disprove, or discredit a rival religion; in theory they are distinct from apologetics (theological defense of one’s own religion), but in practice the two categories often overlap. In the medieval Mediterranean world, Jews, Christians, and Muslims frequently composed polemical texts against rival religions, and against heretical tendencies within their own faiths.
Latin Christians became increasingly aware of the existence of Islam as a rival religion in the twelfth century, as a result of growing contacts with the Muslim world: crusade and Reconquista (Christian reconquest of Iberia), to be sure, but also trade and travel, study and translation. A few Latin authors had previously shown some awareness of the rudiments of Islam: Paulus Alvarus and Eulogius of Cordoba wrote anti-Islamic diatribes in support of the Christian martyrs of Cordoba in the 850s, but their works were unknown to later writers; a few snippets of information about Muhammad and Islam were translated from Greek texts into Latin. Yet on the whole, writers from Bede to the author of the Chanson de Roland portrayed the Saracen as a pagan idolater; this portrayal is found in literary texts, legal treatises, and purported travel narratives into the sixteenth century.
In the twelfth century, however, various Latin writers forged a better-informed, though no less polemical, vision of Islam. This development was due in large part to the growing intellectual and cultural contacts between Spain and Northern Europe. Arabic-speaking Christians of the Iberian Peninsula renewed the traditions of apologetics and polemics against Islam; the Arab Christian tradition in turn influenced Latin writers such as Petrus Alfonsi and Peter the Venerable of Cluny. Petrus Alfonsi’s Dialogues against the Jews (Dialogi contra Iudaeos) contain an anti-Muslim chapter derived largely from earlier Arab Christian polemics, in particular from the ninth- or tenth-century Risālat al-Kindi (Letter of al-Kindi). The key to Peter Alfonsi’s polemical vision of Islam is the portrayal of Muhammad as a scoundrel and heresiarch who forged bogus revelations to incite a gullible people into following him. Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, traveled to Spain in 1142-1143 and assembled a team of translators, which produced a full, annotated Latin version of the Qur’ān, along with translations of other Muslim texts and of the Risālat al-Kindi Using this collection of texts along with the polemics of Petrus Alfonsi, Peter himself composed two anti-Islamic tracts. Like the earlier authors he relied upon, Peter presents Islam as a heresy forged by Muhammad who “vomited forth almost all of the excrement of the old heresies which he had drunk up as the devil poured it out” [Petrus Venerabilis, “Summa totius haeresis Saracenorum,” in Schriften zum Islam, ed. Reinhold Glei (Altenberg: CIS-Verlag, 1985), p. 9].
Polemics against the religion of Muhammad or of the Saracens took their place alongside polemics against other “heresies” and against Judaism. Polemicists adapted the biography of Muhammad to fit those of earlier heresiarchs and of Antichrist, putting the accent on the prophet’s supposed lasciviousness and bellicosity, which inspired his followers to reject Christianity and to wage war against Christendom. The polemicists marshaled arguments from logic, science, and scripture in the fight against what they presented as the “Saracen error.” This vision of Islam was shared by polemicists who knew little about Islam (e.g., Alan of Lille in his De fide catholica of around 1200) and those who knew a considerable amount about it (e.g., Riccoldo da Montecroce or Ramon Llull).
The more informed authors attacked not only Islam’s prophet, but also its sacred book, the Qur’ān. It was read by some polemicists in the original Arabic, and by others in the Latin translations of Robert of Ketton (commissioned by Peter of Cluny in the 1140s), Mark of Toledo (1210), or the (now-lost) fifteenth-century trilingual Arabic-Latin-Spanish version of Juan de Segovia and ‘īsā ibn Jābir. The goals of these polemicists were twofold: to discredit the Qur’ān (or, in their terms, to “prove” that it was not divinely inspired) and to glean pro-Christian arguments from it. These authors combed the Qur’ānfor internal contradictions and errors of fact that they brandished to “prove” the irrationality of both message and messenger; contemporary Christian polemicists deployed the same technique against the Talmud, while Jewish and Muslim writers attacked the Gospel in the same way. Qur’ānic stories about sacred history were deemed ridiculous when they differed from the biblical versions;Qur’ānic laws on sex and marriage, along with the Qur’ān’s descriptions of a sensual paradise, were plucked out of context in order to demonstrate the libidinous nature of Muhammad and his Saracen followers. Some of these polemicists attacked Muslim practices (the Ramadan fast, ritual libations, the pilgrimage to Mecca, etc.) and doctrines (predestination, jihād or holy war, denial of essential Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and Incarnation). Yet at the same time, many Christian readers stressed that the Qur’ān confirmed much of Christian doctrine: they catalogued Qur’ānic praise of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and the Gospels. Most of its medieval Christian readers showed this kind of ambivalence toward the Qur’ān. Some emphasized the positive: Pseudo-William of Tripoli’s De statu Sarracenorum (c. 1275) used selected passages from the Qur’ān to show that Muslim doctrine was close to Christianity and that Muslims were ready to convert peaceably; the contemporary author Fidenzio of Padua chose other passages to present Muslims as irredeemably hostile to Christians, implacable enemies who must be militarily crushed.
This latter view of Islam pervades Latin polemic texts (which often sport titles such as Against the Errors [or Heresy] of the Saracens); it was also deployed by other authors for other didactic and polemical purposes. In particular, chroniclers and propagandists of wars against Muslims used this caricature of Islam and its prophet in order to incite, justify, and glorify military action (past, present, or future) against Muslims. Guibert of Nogent inserted a scurrilous biography of Muhammad into the opening of his chronicle of the First Crusade, the Dei gesta per Francos. Mathomus (as Guibert calls the prophet) trains a dove to eat out of his ear and affirms that it is the Archangel Gabriel come to reveal God’s will to him; through various other bogus miracles he hoodwinks the gullible Arabs into making them his leader and following a law based on sexual excess. Guibert presents Muhammad as the latest and most virulent of a long line of oriental heresiarchs who succeeded in seducing and subduing the effeminate and heresy-prone orientals; hence the justification of the conquest of the East by stolid and manly Latin Christians. William of Tyre, in his Chronicon, presented Muhammad as the “first born of Satan” [Guillaume de Tyr, Chronique, ed. Robert B. C. Huygens, 2 vols. (Turnhout: Brepols, 1986), 1:105], a false prophet who seduced the Arabs into following his depraved law; William presumably developed this polemical image in greater detail in his (now lost) Gesta orientalium principum. James of Vitry gives essentially the same view of Islam in his writings, presenting the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) as justified primarily in order to rescue the Eastern church, languishing under Saracen dominion, and to restore it to its former glory.
In Leôn and Castile, thirteenth-century chroniclers (Lucas de Tuy, Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, and King Alfonso X of Castile) inserted a hostile biography of Muhammad into their chronicles of Spanish history in order to help affirm the illegitimacy of all Muslim dominion in the Iberian Peninsula. These apologists for crusade and Reconquista lambast the Muslims for spreading their religion by the sword and present Christian aggression as a largely defensive campaign aimed at reconquering Christian territory and reclaiming churches destroyed or converted into mosques. For many of these chroniclers, the saints (George, Isidore of Seville, James, Mary, and others) play an active role in routing the Muslim enemy; their supposed intervention underscores the legitimacy of Christian wars against Muslims. Alfonso X, in his law treatise Las Siete partidas, cites the religious error of the Moors as the justification for their social and legal inferiority in Castilian law.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth century, as the crusading movement died a slow death and the Ottomans conquered the Balkans, the Turk became an object of fear and hatred: the anti-Muslim polemical works of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were published in Latin and translated into European vernaculars. Only in the eighteenth century, when the Ottomans posed less of a threat to Europe, did a few European authors begin to present Islam and its prophet in a positive light; yet the negative stereotypes forged by medieval polemicists persist until today.