Corresponding across Religious Borders: Al-Bājī’s Response to a Missionary Letter from France

in Medieval Encounters
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Abstract

“I have examined, O monk, the letter coming from you, the friendship therein proffered, the advice which you offer, and the intention which you disclose.” With these words begins the reply written by the eminent Andalusian Mālikī scholar Abū l-Walīd Sulaymān al-Bājī (d. 1081) to a letter received at the Muslim court of Saragossa from an unidentified ‘monk of France’ inviting the ruler to convert to Christianity. This letter, if authentic, is the earliest extant record of a Christian mission to Muslims in the West. After introducing al-Bājī and situating him in the socio-political and religious circumstances of the time, this article offers a review of past scholarship relating to this correspondence, which has mostly focused on the authenticity of the Christian letter and the possible identification of its author. It is argued in favor of the authenticity of the exchange, offering reasons for it. The article then turns to al-Bājī’s text, seeking to draw from it what it can tell us about him and how he viewed Christians and Christianity.

Corresponding across Religious Borders: Al-Bājī’s Response to a Missionary Letter from France

in Medieval Encounters

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References

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7

Garcia Domingues“A obra” 40-41. Interestingly according to the witness of al-Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ al-Bājī would have advocated the unity of the taifa kings under the aegis of the nascent Almoravid movement still in Morocco. See Hanna E. Kassis “Muslim Revival in Spain in the Fifth/Eleventh Century: Causes and Ramifications” Der Islam 67 (1990) 91 n. 46.

8

Bosch Vilá“A propósito” 104. On the Banū Hūd rule of the taifa of Saragossa see María Jesús Viguera Molíns Aragón musulmán (Zaragoza: Mira Editores 1988) 185-224. The reign of al-Muqtadir is described in 188-206. See also Brian A. Catlos The Victors and the Vanquished: Christians and Muslims of Catalonia and Aragon 1050-1300 (Cambridge UK; New York NY: Cambridge University Press 2004) 19-120: Muslim Domination of the Ebro and its Demise.

11

Maribel Fierro“La religión,” in Los reinos de taifas: Al-Andalus en el siglo XIed. M.J. Viguera Molíns (Madrid: Espasa Calpe1994) 412. Al-Bājī’s initiation to this new discipline may well have taken place in Baghdad under the guidance of the above-mentioned al-Shīrāzī an acknowledged master in the realm of juridical controversy.

14

Abdelmagid Turki“Lettre du ‘Moine de France’ à al-Muqtadir billāh, roi de Saragosse, et la réponse d’al-Bāy̑ī, le faqīh andalou,” Al-Andalus 31 (1966) 82-83.

18

Fierro“La religión” 423-425.

20

Fierro“La religión” 495. Hereafter all translations into English are mine.

21

See Moshe Perlmann“Ibn Ḥazm on the Equivalence of Proofs,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 40 (1949-1950) 279-290.

25

Kassis“Muslim Revival” 78.

26

Ibid. 82. See also Fierro“La religión” 401.

27

Kassis“Muslim Revival” 83.

29

Kassis“Muslim Revival” 89-90.

31

Kassis“Muslim Revival” 92.

36

Douglas M. Dunlop“A Christian Mission to Muslim Spain in the 11th Century,” Al-Andalus 17 (1952) 259-310. Hereafter I shall adopt Dunlop’s division of the text into paragraphs and give a revised version of his translation.

38

Dunlop“A Christian Mission” 261. Indications of the position of authority enjoyed by the ‘monk of France’ are found in §§2 8 9 15 37 39.

40

Dunlop“A Christian Mission” 262.

41

See for instance John Tolan“Istoria de Mahomet,” Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History. General Editor David Thomas (Leiden: Brill 2011) available online at: http://0-www.brillonline.nl.library.lausys.georgetown.edu/subscriber/entry?entry=CMR_COM-23720. English translation by Kenneth B. Wolf in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian Muslim and Jewish Sources ed. by O.R. Constable (Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Press 1997) 48-50. This is one of the earliest polemical treatments of Muḥammad in Latin presenting him as a false prophet and precursor of the Antichrist: “The spirit of error appeared to him in the form of a vulture and exhibiting a golden mouth said it was the angel Gabriel and ordered Muḥammad to present himself among his people as a prophet” (48). See also the references given by Benjamin Z. Kedar in his Crusade and Mission: European Approaches toward the Muslims (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press 1984) 22 n. 48.

42

Jean-Marie GaudeulEncounters and Clashes: Islam and Christianity in History (Rome: Pontificio Istituto di Studi Arabi e d’Islamistica2000) 1:136 n. 39. Parallels and possible connections between Eastern Nestorian writings on Islam and Mozarabic views are discussed in Dominique Urvoy “La pensée religieuse des mozarabes face à l’Islam” Traditio 39 (1983) 419-432.

43

Bosch Vilá“A propósito” 98. In his opinion this exchange should be considered not only as being probably the first Western Christian mission to Muslims but also “the first example of religious polemical literature between Christian Europe and the Muslim West” (99). It is not clear to me precisely what Bosch Vilá means by that last observation. If he is suggesting that the ‘Letter of the Monk of France’ was the first case of Christian anti-Islamic polemics in the West then he is obviously mistaken. If however he means that the exchange between the anonymous monk and al Bājī was the first such polemical exchange between Christian Europe and the Muslim West then his observation could very well be accurate.

44

Allan Cutler“Who was the ‘Monk of France’ and when did he write? A note on D.M. Dunlop’s ‘A Christian Mission to Muslim Spain in the 11th Century’,” Al-Andalus 28 (1963) 249-269.

46

Cutler“Who was the ‘Monk of France’” 263. Elsewhere Cutler conjectures that Anastasius’s attempt to convert al-Muqtadir might have inspired Peter the Hermit’s idea to convert Kerbogha the Turkish military ruler of Mosul who besieged the crusaders at Antioch in June 1098 (see Allan Cutler “The First Crusade and the Idea of Conversion” The Muslim World 58 (1968) 65-71).

47

James Waltz“Historical Perspective on ‘Early Missions’ to Muslims: A Response to Allan Cutler,” The Muslim World 61 (1971) 183. Waltz remains unconvinced however that related claims for missionary interests by Popes Gregory VII and Urban II can be sustained. According to him the eleventh-century reform Popes “sought to reunite separated Christians and to defend present and reconquer former Christian territories desiring the ‘driving out’ and ‘extermination’ rather than the conversion of Muslims there” (182). Waltz also rejects much of Cutler’s interpretation of the alleged attempt at converting Kerbogha by Peter the Hermit. As he sees it conversions do not prove the existence of “missions” and it cannot be demonstrated that the First Crusaders held the idea of converting Muslims concluding that “the Cluniac conversion efforts of the 1070s appear isolated and unproductive of further such efforts prior to the thirteenth century” (185).

53

Viguera MolínsAragón195-197.

54

Kassis“Muslim Revival” 91.

56

GaudeulEncounters1:134-135.

57

BeechThe Brief Eminence89-98.

61

Fierro“La religión” 475.

66

See for instance John V. TolanSons of Ishmael: Muslims Through European Eyes in the Middle Ages (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida2008) 19-34. According to Tolan the polemical Christian biographers of Muḥammad denigrate Islam by portraying him as a scoundrel: “He is variously shown to be a pervert drunkard epileptic magician heretic swindler murderer Machiavellian political schemer and intimate of Satan” (19). See also Christys Christians 62-68.

67

GaudeulEncounters1:138.

69

Epalza“Notes” 100-102. See also by the same author Fray Anselm Turmeda (ʾAbdallāh al Tary̑umân) y su polémica islamo-cristiana: edición traducción y estudio de la Tuḥfa 2nd ed. (Madrid: Hiperión 1994) 67-68.

70

Abdelmajid Charfi“Polémiques islamo-chrétiennes à l’époque médiévale,” in Scholarly Approaches to Religion Interreligious Perceptions and Islamed. J. Waardenburg (Bern: Peter Lang1995) 264-273. The other four functions of Muslim anti-Christian polemics are: to redress the demographic imbalance in favor of the Christians by seeking to convert them to Islam; the integration of neophytes thus avoiding the risk of syncretism; as an exercise of theological elaboration; and the search for the biblical origins of Islam by which Charfi means the biblical predictions of Muḥammad and the question of his miracles.

72

KedarCrusade54. According to Kedar the main deterrent to Christian mission to Muslims in the West was the early awareness of the Muslim prohibition of proselytism against their religion and the consequent risk of death for both apostates and missionaries. This explains the otherwise puzzling fact that Western Christians abstained for centuries from any organized attempt at evangelizing Muslims while such missionary activities abounded in the northern and eastern European fronts.

73

CowdreyPope Gregory489-494.

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