islam

Medieval European Perceptions of Islam

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In 1087, a joint Pisan and Genoese force attacked the North African town of Mahdia, located in modern-day Tunisia. Christian forces returned to Italy triumphantly and used their spoils of war to construct commemorative churches.

A number of Arabic and Latin sources from the time testify to the events surrounding the raid of Mahdia.

One of the most important Latin sources is the poem Carmen in Victoriam Pisanorum, ‘Song for the Triumph of the Pisans’. The Carmen, written by a Pisan cleric only months after the raid, commemorates the expedition.

It has often been argued that the raid on Mahdia – conducted under the banner of St. Peter against a Muslim ruler – was a direct precursor to the First Crusade which followed eight years later. The Carmen is often viewed as providing context for the development of a crusading ideology in the eleventh century.

A pioneering new study has taken a fresh look at the Carmen. Matt King, a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Minnesota, has been studying the Carmen as a means of understanding Christian perceptions of Islam.

“An examination of this text will allow historians to consider Latin Christian perspectives on Islam and its adherents during the period immediately preceding the First Crusade,” King writes in his article, published in Hortulus, a graduate journal on medieval studies.

It is usually suggested that Pisan interests in North Africa were primarily commercial, with military activities receiving less attention. King argues that there was a certain level of coexistence and cooperation between Pisa and Islamic states, while the Carmen reveals a different side of the story where religiously-charged rhetoric could be applied to justify violent ends.

The Mahdia raid can be located in a wider context of Pisan military activities in North Africa. Pisa had been involved in military actions against Muslims throughout the eleventh century; briefly seizing the city of Bone in 1034 and helping the Norman Robert Guiscard in his conquest of Sicily in 1063.

“The author of the Carmen was thus writing in the midst of conflicts between burgeoning Italian commercial powers and Muslim states in the Mediterranean,” King notes.

Importantly, the Carmen makes frequent Old Testament references in an effort to locate Pisan activity in a Biblical tradition. Within this framework, the inhabitants of Mahdia take the form of Old Testament villains who feel the wrath of God. In contrast, King argues, the Pisans are a Gideon/David/Moses combination who, through the favour of God, are able to defeat their adversary.

“Such a description makes clear the deep religious roots that run throughout this story,” King notes. “In this narrative, it is impossible to separate the sacking of Mahdia or the author’s perception of Islam from this ancient narrative.”

The portrayal of Islam in the Carmen is a multi-faceted one. Pisan attacks are understood as an epic confrontation, similar to the Old Testament and classical tales. Further, the doctrine of the Muslim inhabitants of Mahdia is portrayed as a form of heretical Christianity. Taken together, these depictions of Muslim Africa reveal a medieval Latin understanding of the area as a place and people of the utmost evil.

King notes that the Carmen is, however, a triumphant poem. The author is consciously contextualising the Pisan-Genoese raid in a tradition of God-willed triumph. Simply taking the Carmen’s portrayal of Islam at face value, therefore, may misrepresent the Latin understanding of Islam.

“If we cautiously take the Carmen as indicative of general trends in Pisan perceptions of Islam and Africa,” King concludes, “we thus can see an image of Pisa as a city with some knowledge of medieval Ifriqiya and as one that used this knowledge to nurture some image of righteous war against Muslims.”

For more information: www.hortulus-journal.com

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: DrFO.Jr.Tn

By: Adam Steedman Thake in newhistorian.com

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A Jug of Wine, A Loaf of Bread – and Thou; Isis, Iraq and the real Islamic caliphates

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A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

As a bunch of gun-toting religious maniacs tear apart the Middle East, I’ve been thinking about this verse. It’s from Edward FitzGerald’s 19th-century translation of the 12th-century Persian poet-philosopher-mathematician Omar Khayyam’s quatrain. There have been a few rather different translations, but they seem largely to address the same thing: being with the person you love, singing songs and drinking wine.

That’s the image I tend to associate with an Islamic caliphate, although there is some argument over whether or not Khayyam was a religious Muslim: he is described as a Sufi, a member of a spiritual branch of Islam, but also as a hedonist and agnostic. But according to Remi Hauman, a Khayyam scholar, a version of that verse goes even further back, to an actual Umayyad caliph, Walîd Ibn Yazîd, who ruled briefly in AD 743 to 744:

Leave me, Sulaymâ, wine, a singing girl, and a cup. I don’t need any more possessions.
When life is pleasant in Ramlat ‘Alij, and I hold Salmâ in my arms, I would not change places with anyone.

I’ve been thinking about this because the Sunni fanatics of Isis have now called the little territory they’ve carved for themselves on the Iraq-Syria border a new Islamic State, and in fact a “caliphate”. Isis believe that Shias are heretics who should be killed, demand that all Muslims worldwide pledge allegiance to their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who they call the Caliph, and wish to impose an especially brutal form of Sharia.

“They want to build a caliphate,” says Tom Holland, the author of In the Shadow of the Sword, “and that raises the question of what they mean by that.” The original caliphate was the Islamic Arab empire that arose in the years after Mohammed’s death. And, like the Roman empire and the British empire, says Holland, it evolved over centuries – and then “invented its own backstory”, created a tale in which it was set up in the way that Mohammed was instructed by God to set up an empire. “Caliph” means “successor”: the caliphs were supposed to be the successors of the Prophet.

The Sunni/Shia divide, incidentally, stems from a disagreement over whether the caliph should be chosen by the Muslim people, as the Sunnis believe, or appointed by God.

Anyway. As the Khayyam poem suggests, the caliphates were not always what Isis would think of as Islamic. The Caliph al-Mutawakkil, we are told, was murdered by his guard after a night of heavy drinking. As well as the wine, at least one caliph, Al-Hakam II, the Caliph of Cordoba, was openly homosexual, and had a harem of boys; he only bore an heir by having a female concubine dress up in male clothes and take a male name, Jafar. According to the Encyclopedia of Medieval Iberia, in the final centuries of Islamic Spain:

…because of Christian opposition to it and because of immigration and conversion of those who were sympathetic, homosexuality took on a greater ideological role. It had an important place in Islamic mysticism and monasticism; the contemplation of the beardless youth was “an act of worship”, the contemplation of God in human form.

And the harems, the world of Scheherazade and the 1,001 Arabian Nights:

The girls sat around me, and when night came, five of them rose and set up a banquet with plenty of nuts and fragrant herbs. Then they brought the wine vessels and we sat to drink.

With the girls sitting all around me, some singing, some playing the flute, the psalter, the lute, and all other musical instruments, while the bowls and cups went round. I was so happy that I forgot every sorrow in the world, saying to myself, ‘This is the life; alas, that it is fleeting’. Then they said to me, ‘O our lord, choose from among us whomever you wish to spend this night with you’.

Of course this wouldn’t have been the whole story of an Islamic caliphate. But this is part of the story; the caliphates were not, always, harsh puritanical places, but places of learning, places of sybaritic pleasure, places of wine and song.

But, says Tom Holland, Isis aren’t interested in the historical realities as they try to make their own “Caliphate”. “They’re not interested in Omar Khayyam, they’re not interested in the real caliphates: they want to bring to light God’s plan, to restore the civilisation they believe Mohammed built in Medina.” Their image of that civilisation has no basis in historical reality, and they wouldn’t care if it did. But the real story of the caliphates is both more interesting and more complex than their simplistic, brutal vision.

No doubt it would do no good at all. But I wish someone would read Omar Khayyam to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

in The Telegraph

by: Tom Chivers
Tom Chivers is the Telegraph’s assistant comment editor. He writes mainly on science.