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Muhammad in Early European Sources

Today academics have no problems in admitting the fact that the image of
Muhammad often given in the West prior to the last century and a half; has been
one of pure speculation and slander. In fact many scholars in the west of the
past century such as Karen Armstrong and Montgomery Watt have written essays and
articles or even books regarding the unfair portrayal of our Prophet in Europe.

Although Muhammad is a name known in most households throughout Europe and is
not seen as alien or vaguely uncommon; being the 20th most common name given to
male babies in this country[1]. It is also a name which has been through many
transitions and a name that carries many images and connotations throughout
Europe and the Western world. This Essay will focus on the early depictions of
Muhammad in Europe from the 10th Century C.E (when the earliest depictions first
began to arise) till the 19th Century when a more honest approach begins to
appear amongst European Scholars.

Today academics have no problems in admitting the fact that the image of
Muhammad often given in the West prior to the last century and a half; has been
one of pure speculation and slander. In fact many scholars in the west of the
past century such as Karen Armstrong and Montgomery Watt have written essays and
articles or even books regarding the unfair portrayal of our Prophet in Europe.

Within the history books regarding pre-Islamic Arabia and the Christians and
Jews of Arabia prior to Muhammad announcing his Prophethood, we have sources
that allude to the fact that both Christians and Jews of the region were
expecting a new Prophet.

“I will raise them up a prophet from among their brothers, like you; and I will
put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I shall command
him.” (Deuteronomy 18:18)[2]

However the reaction to the religion of Islam by the Church in Europe shows a
completely different attitude to that of the Jews and Christians of Arabia. The
first evidently historically documented attacks from within Europe on the
Prophet Muhammad and the religion of Islam occurred during the Muslim occupation
of Spain (Al-Andalus) in the city of Cordoba (around 850 C.E), in which two
Christians by the names of Eulogio and Alvaro began a movement known as the
Martyrs. This small movement in Cordoba encouraged Christians to go out and
start slandering or defiling the personality of the Prophet, resulting in the
death penalty for committing what was then a public crime. Basing their claims
on a rather distorted and brief biography of Muhammad which within it had
accounts of Muhammad dying in the year 666 C.E, fulfilling what they saw to be
the mark of the beast; thus making Muhammad the Anti-Christ prophesised in their
Bible:

“And he shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints
of the Most High; and he shall think to change the seasons and the law; and they
shall be given into his hand until a time and times and half a time.” (Book of
Daniel 7: 23-5)[3]

They saw the triumph of Muhammad’s message over the Christian lands as the
fulfilment of this Prophecy and believed he was the one changing both the
seasons and the laws. This was the only way to justify in their eyes, the rapid
spread of Islam and answer the question many Christians were asking i.e: “How
could God allow this impious faith to prosper and thrive?”[4]

The early claims about Muhammad put forward by such movements as the Cordovan
Martyrs were based on this rather weak apocalyptic biography, which portrayed
Muhammad as an “impostor and a charlatan”[5] who had claimed revelation in order
to deceive the world, someone who indulged in disgusting sexual acts and
encouraged his followers to do likewise as well as someone who forced people to
convert to Islam at the edge of the sword. Although the Christians in Spain were
all too familiar with this depiction and image of Muhammad, few others in Europe
became acquainted with these tales and of those who did, there was little
reaction. It was not until another two hundred and fifty years later that
Western Europe particularly the Church would use these fables about the Prophet
and reproduce them for public propagation. Although as some historians note; a
few serious scholars of Europe attempted to look at Muhammad and Islam from a
more objective view, it was this image of “Mahound” that continued to be the
common view of Muhammad among the people of Europe.

Modern day Academics have noted that the fictional depiction of the Prophet
Muhammad that became a myth on par with King Arthur, Charlemagne and Robin Hood,
made it extremely difficult for people to see him as a historical figure and
give him the same treatment as historical figures such as Alexander the Great
and Hannibal of Carthage.[6] Karen Armstrong has noted in her book that “The
fictional portrayal of Mahound in The Satanic Verses resonates deeply with these
established Western Fantasies”[7] of Muhammad.

In order for the Christian Scholars of this era to justify the success of
Muhammad and his religion, stories were concocted regarding the trickery and
magic implored by Muhammad and they way he passed them off as miracles.
Accusations and pure fabrications regarding Muhammad’s miracles were taught
amongst the Church in Europe; for example- Muhammad had trained a white dove by
placing peas behind his ear which the dove would collect, allowing Muhammad to
claim this dove was the Holy Spirit giving him revelation[8].

In the modern approaches at producing a biography of the Prophet undergone in
the past century, Historians are now admitting that they find it hard to deduce
where such accounts and stories about the Prophet have historically come from;
in fact it is becoming now apparent that most of them have no source. N. Daniel,
a modern academic and Historian notes in his book[9] the lack of evidence in
regards to these claims stating that “The most probable explanation of what
happened must be that Christians thought that whatever tended to harm the
enemies of truth was likely to be true”. Such an explanation is actually backed
up from the writings of early western biographers of the Prophet such as Guibert
of Nogent, a Franciscan Monk and Historian (1053-1124) who wrote amongst his
writings about Muhammad that: “It is safe to speak evil of the one whose
malignity exceeds whatever ill can be spoken of” in addition to writing in his
works that he had no source for the work he had produced on the Prophet
Muhammad[10]. However some accounts of Muhammad propagated by the Churches can
be found within the works of John of Damascus (Yuhanna ibn Mansur. d.c 749 C.E)
who was most probably the first Christian to have engaged with Islamic theology
in some detail, being of Arab parentage and a school contemporary of Yazid Ibn
Mu’awiyah, the Umayyad ruler.

John of Damascus upholds in his writings that Muhammad is the founder of the
‘Heresy of Ishmaelites’ (although he refers to them as Hagarenes in a few of his
writings). John’s main focus regarding Muhammad in his writing revolved around
the fact that he saw the Islamic doctrine concerning Jesus to be a heresy thus
associated the religion brought by Muhammad with the Arian Christian Church
which existed at the time. The Arian church did not share Islam’s view of Jesus
however did deny the co-eternity of the Son with the Father in Theological
matters. So John is believed to have been the first to narrate in the polemical
transmission that Muhammad had been instructed by an Arian Monk in Damascus
called Bahira; Though History states that Muhammad only once ever encountered
Bahira and whilst at a very young age. Other arguments included in the workings
of John that crop up even amongst modern day Polemics include arguments about
Muhammad such as Muhammad lifting the Qur’an from the Old and New Testament and
that Muhammad had married the ex-wife of his own son[11]. Modern day Orientalist,
Robert Irwin argues in his book that “The hostility that pervades John’s account
of Islam should be understood within the context of the time, Christians living
under Islamic rule were tolerated, but there were strict limits to that
tolerance”[12]. Irwin notes that the situation for Christians particularly in
Damascus where the Umayyads ruled with an Iron fist was difficult and strenuous
to say the least, perhaps fuelled the already existing flames in John’s heart
against Islam. John of Damascus’s writings remained the main source for
producing information about the Prophet in Europe for over 1000 years.

By the 12th Century in Europe, we notice a transition in the lies about
Muhammad, far be it from an honest account instead we see a change in the claims
about the status Muhammad gave himself in Arabia. Charges that Muhammad became
the God of the Arabs and Muslims begins to crop up, and this is seen in the
Christian play cycles and romances of the 12th Century in Europe. Mahound, Mahun,
Mahomet and in German- Machmet, a name becoming synonymous with demon, devil and
idol was invented and coined by the writers of Play circles. In such writings,
the status of Muhammad has been changed from earlier claims of him being the
anti-Christ to newer claims of Muhammad being a heathen idol worshipped by the
Arabs.[13] In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Willehalm and Ulrich von Turheim’s
Rennewart, Muhammad is represented as Mahun, which is an idol whose image the
Saracens worship ritually and take into battle. After their defeat in these
plays, the Saracens would throw the idol to the hounds and pigs or trample and
urine on it. In all these plays the Saracens lose, and thus the depiction of
Muhammad as an idol is usually destroyed by the Saracens, with the exception of
one play when Sowdone of Babylon take Rome. In this particular play, the
Saracens are depicted burning frankincense in front of Mahun and the other
polytheist’s Gods and drinking the blood of beats before feasting on Milk and
Honey. Such claims later developed into a new addition to the English language
of “Mammetry” meaning the worship of images or idolatry, a false religion[14].

Thus as Minou Reeves, has noted in her book regarding Muhammad’s image in
Europe, “The man who preached that there was no God but the Creator of the
Universe and who renounced idolatry as the gravest of all sins, himself became
an idol in the songs and play cycles of the Middle Ages in Europe.”[15] Whilst
these claims presented in claims and songs were meant for and presented to a
wider public audience, in an attempt to undermine a rival religion in the eyes
of Christian Europe, theological polemics remained confined to scholarly church
circles.

Surprisingly even Dante Alighieri, a romanticised Christian Theologian of the
12th Century who took most of his theological insights from Tasawwuf and Sufism
has written in his “Divine Comedy” poem that Muhammad and his cousin Ali are
both among the infernal powers in the lowest chambers or sequence of Hell.
However Dante writes that Muhammad’s crime is not the founding of a new
religion, rather the heresy of Christianity. Dante depicts Muhammad as a sinner
in hell, tearing apart his own flesh with his own hands, which was a symbolic
gesture to depict Muhammad as the chief amongst the damned souls of Hell[16].

Europe unfortunately remained prone to this rather non factual and biased image
of Muhammad being painted by Scholars; Buaben refers to this period of
Orientalism against Muhammad and Islam as The Age of Ignorance. The age of
ignorance is the name given to this period as stated under Buaben’s model, this
age was under the assumption that “there was no truth outside the church.
Christianity was ‘the truth’ and the truth was God, therefore no truth (and
hence God) lay outside Christianity”[17]

Unfortunately in Europe, there was a distinct lack of Scholarly progress made in
the field of Orientalism until the 19th century, I as well as the vast majority
of modern day Orientalists would argue. This was due to both a lack of sincerity
in the efforts of the scholarly elite in Europe as well as the lack of reliable
information translated or available regarding the Biography or Sirah of the
Prophet Muhammad. So the first signs of progress seemingly made in this area
lies in the work of Muir an Academic in Orientalist studies of the Mid 19th
Century, however as Muir clearly states in his aims, he does not come free from
any agenda when it comes to studying the life of Muhammad, quite the opposite
(coming from a Christian Missionary background), Muir has no problem in
admitting his hatred towards the Prophet of Islam.

Even with a Scholar such as Muir, the transitional phase from Early European
attitudes towards Muhammad to a more honest approach is severely tainted by
Muir’s agenda of attempting to refute Muhammad and show him up as a fraud. Muir
appears to be at first sympathetic towards Muhammad’s mission of Prophethood
whilst in Mecca, however goes on to state that he does not view Muhammad’s
revelations from any perspective other than psychological and that he received
no messages from any source outside his own mind[18]. Muir also appears to show
up his own biases against Muhammad or his agenda to belittle him, whilst at
first levelling charges of cruelty and barbarism against him, which appear to be
contradicted by his own references to the way Muhammad treated the Prisoners of
War after the Battle of Badr. Buaben says of Muir’s approach in his book that
“…..seems to fit his thesis that any story of immense disadvantage to Muhammad
must be true.”[19]

However although Muir displays this Christian Missionary agenda against
Muhammad, and a desire to show him up as a fraud (quite reminiscent of most
other Christian Orientalists of the time such as Karl Pfander and many others),
he does use a more honest approach at analysing the Prophet’s life from more
authentic sources, despite the fact he is extremely selective. Muir does
however; pave the way forward for the 20th Century Orientalists such as
Montgomery Watt and Margoliouth who although coming from similar backgrounds to
Muir begin the trend of honest depictions of Muhammad in the 20th Century. Muir
has undoubtedly led the way for a legacy which Orientalism today has taken
heavily from.

In Conclusion, the early attitudes of Scholars in Europe towards Muhammad, sees
very little change right up until the 19th Century. It is apparent however, that
the attitudes towards Muhammad were not entirely evident through honestly drawn
conclusions, rather the opposite. The attitudes of the European Scholars, I
would argue appear to be the result of the fear of Islam spreading rapidly into
Western Europe and as an anti-virus towards the spread (as many of the Scholars
and European church fathers would’ve seen it), lies about Muhammad were
circulated and propagated in order to put a fear of the religion into the hearts
and minds of the Europeans. Given the power that the Church once held in Europe
it would have been close to impossible for any Scholar to show any sign of
sympathy towards Islam, this is reflected by the fact that even Mystics such as
Dante who took heavily from the Islamic Mysticism, had to show such an animosity
and hatred towards Muhammad. Even the more honest approach taken up by Muir
(after a trend of completed unfounded attacks for over 9 centuries) one notices
that the use of authentic Islamic sources are then too only looked towards in
order to discredit Muhammad as a Prophet. Therefore I conclude by saying that
this period of Scholarship towards Muhammad lacks any degree of honesty and that
until the time of Muir when sources were becoming readily available, the vast
majority of attacks against Muhammad were entirely unfounded and was in reality
slander.

Bibliography

2001, The Tanakh, Jewish Publication Society, Brooklyn, New York

Reeves, M. 2000, Muhammad in Europe, Garnet Publishing Limited, UK

Buaben J.M. 1996, Image of the Prophet Muhammad in the West, The Islamic
Foundation, Leicester, UK.

1962, Shorter Oxford Dictionary, Oxford, UK.

Armstrong, Karen. 1991, Muhammad, a Biography of the Prophet, Phoenix
Publishers, UK

Armstrong, Karen, 2006, Muhammad, Prophet for our Time, Eminent Lives
Publishers, UK.

References

[1] . See Government Statistics for 2004 at http://www.statistics.gov.uk/specials/babiesnames_boys.asp

[2] . The Tanakh (Old Testament), Hebrew and English Translation, Jewish
Publication Society.

[3] . The Tanakh (Old Testament), Hebrew and English Translation, Jewish
Publication Society.

[4] . Armstrong, Karen. “Muhammad, a Biography of the Prophet”, page 24, Phoenix
Publications.

[5] .Ibid.

[6] Irwin, Robert. “For Lust of Knowledge”, Chapter 2.

[7] . Armstrong, Karen. “Muhammad, a Biography of the Prophet”, page 26, Phoenix
Publications.

[8] . Acknowledged by both Karen Armstrong and Minou Reeves.

[9] . ‘The Critical Approach to Arab Society in the Middle Ages’ (Annales
Islamologiques) Vol. 17 pp 31-52

[10] – Buaben, J.M- “Image of the Prophet Muhammad in the West”, Islamic
Foundation, Leicester, UK.

[11] . Most Probably a lapse in understanding the events with Zayd ibn Haritha.

[12] . Irwin, Robert. “The Lust of Knowledge” pp 23.

[13] . Reeves, Minou- “Muhammad in Europe”, pp 87.

[14] . See the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, 3rd Edition, Oxford, 1962. p. 1220.

[15]. .Ibid

[16] The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri.

[17] Buaben, J.M. The Image of the Prophet Muhammad in the West.

[18] . Muir, The Life of Muhammad from the Original Sources.

[19] Buaben J.M. The Image of the Prophet Muhammad in the West.

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