Polemics: Christian-Muslim Polemics

views updated


The Qurʾān itself determines the polemic area between Muslims and Christians, because it states the terms and sets the limits of Christian error. The issues it defines have been disputed ever since: God is not three; Jesus is not the Son of God; he was not crucified (cf. surah 4:157, 171), and the Bible has been falsified and misinterpreted. This "corruption" (tarīf ) includes suppressing forecasts of the Prophet. Christians have similarly sought to discredit the Qurʾān, but they have been under no comparable restraint in choosing their themes, and they have often attacked the reputation of the Prophet in order to argue that his revelation was contrived and fictitious.

Muslim Polemic

Christians long remained a majority under Muslim rule, but they began to attack Islam as soon as they realized that it had come to stay; however, it is convenient here to consider first the Muslim attack on tarīf. One of the first Muslims to argue that Christians had misunderstood rather than falsified their scriptures was a Zaydi Shīʿī from the Yemen, al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm (d. ah 246/860 ce). Until the severe reaction against the colonialism of the last century, most Muslim polemic was purely doctrinal. In his Book of Religion and Empire, ʿAlī ibn Sahl al-abarī (ninth century), a former Nestorian, aims, perhaps to justify his conversion, to show that the Christian scriptures foretell Muammad and enjoin Islam, and his Answer to Christians, concerned with Christology, is again based on his knowledge of Christian sources. Supposedly earlier (c. 820) is the Apology of al-Hāshimī, but we know it in conjunction with its refutation by the pseudonymous ʿAbd al-Masī ibn Isāq al-Kindī, attributed to Yayā ibn ʿAdī (d. 974), and it is likely to be at most a revised and Christian-edited Muslim argument. Although it abuses Christianity, attacks the doctrine of the Trinity, despises the Cross, and deprecates Christian fasting, it plays into the hands of the refuter and has a contrived air. More typical is the writing of al-Jāhi (d. 869), who is aware of arguments actually used by Christians (e.g., that the Qurʾān misrepresents their beliefs), but his knowledge is superficial, and he is much put out by the existence of different Christian orthodoxies.

The Muslim critique of Christianity increased rapidly in knowledge and sophistication. The attack by Abū ʿĪsā al-Warrāq on the contradictions inherent in orthodox Christology seems to have made a considerable impact and was refuted at length by Yayā ibn ʿAdī. Ibn azm (d. 1064) understands tarīf in the literal sense and devotes most of his Discernment of the Confessions and Sects to scriptural dispute and to the defects of the Gospels and other books of the Bible. Al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), in his Excellent Refutation of the Divinity of Jesus Christ, uses Christian scripture (known, says his Christian editor, from Muslim sources) to criticize in turn the christological positions of the Chalcedonian, non-Chalcedonian, and Nestorian churches. Muslims were now at grips with Christian apologists. Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfī (d. 1285), answering the brief Letter to a Muslim by Paul (al-Rāhib, i.e., the Monk) of Antioch, Melkite bishop of Sidon (fl. 1160), shows a sound knowledge of Christian scripture and discusses such varied doctrines as the Eucharist and Qurʾanic abrogation (nāsikh, mansūkh ). Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328) also answered Paul, as a courteous address to the king of Cyprus, contrasting the Qurʾān and the Bible in authenticity and expounding long arguments against the Trinity. These disputes are quite inconclusive on both sides.

Toward the end of the European Middle Ages we begin to find Western writers converted from Christianity in the course of the Ottoman advance. ʿAbd Allāh al-Turjumān (early fourteenth century), a former Franciscan, discussed the authenticity of the holy books again in his Intelligent Man's Gift in Reply to Christians. Murād Bay Turjumān, a Hungarian serving at the Porte, wrote a defense of Islam in Turkish and Latin (1556) and praises of the Prophet in Turkish, Latin, and Hungarian; he writes devotionally, often using the terminology of Western religious philosophy. The forged Gospel of Barnabas, in an unexplained sixteenth-century Italian manuscript, an evangelium Muhammadanum intended to accord with the Qurʾanic Jesus, has been conjectured to have a Morisco or convert background.

Christian Polemic

Early polemic is at its best in the dialogue, notably that of the catholicos Timotheos I with the caliph al-Mahdī in about 781 and that of Timotheos's coreligionist Ilyās of Nisibis with the vizier Abū al-Qāsim al-Maghribī in 1026. These Nestorians naturally exploited a Christology that was at least superficially more understandable to Muslims. Such dialogue may not always have taken place as recorded, or even at all, but their conciliatory tone offers a Christian apologetic intended to be inoffensive to a Muslim audience. Timotheos's presentation of the Prophet as "in the way of the prophets" is effective, without conceding any Christian essential.

This was not the usual pattern, even in the form of dialogue. Muslim polemic was often contemptuous, but it was never as virulent as Christian abuse of Islam and the Prophet, and much matter that was largely ridiculous or irrelevant, and always offensive, cannot have been used to impress Muslims, unless imposed by force in regions reconquered by Christians. It may be assumed that polemic develops out of widespread previous discussion, and that much remains at a low level of oral culture. Even in intellectual criticism of the Qurʾanic text, writers forced it to mean what they chose, including, in some Byzantine cases, the worship of Aphrodite. The Byzantine tradition includes authors writing in Greek from within Islam or from outside, among them John of Damascus (d. 749), Theodore Abū Qurrah (eighth-ninth century), George Hamartolus ("the Monk"), Nicetas of Byzantium (both ninth century), and the pseudonymous author of the Letter to the Emir of Damascus (c. 920940). Nicetas is hypercritical in his treatment of the Qurʾanic text; all these tend to attack the Prophet, especially his wars and his marriage to Zaynab bint Jash, the influence on him of a suppositious Arian adviser, and the doctrine of a material Paradise. The pseudo-Kindī (mentioned above), writing in Arabic, is the most consistently unscrupulous in distorting every episode of the Prophet's life as self-indulgence (mostly sexual) and aggression (banditry, assassination). He deliberately ignored the sense of the Prophet's holiness in the sources he must have used, and he supported the gratuitous notion that the Prophet expected the resurrection or ascension of his dead body.

These themes had already entered the West by the middle of the ninth century. The miniature polemic found in Pamplona by Eulogius of Cordova (d. 859), archbishop elect of Toledo, and encapsulated in his Liber apologeticus martyrum, contains nearly all the elements used by al-Kindī and by later Western polemicists: the Prophet is accused of aggression and libertinism; the Qurʾān is ridiculed; much is made of the disappointed resurrection; the Arabs of the Hejaz are described as brutish. Eulogius was the pupil of the abbot Speraindeo, who had written a short polemic, now lost, in which he attacked the Qurʾanic Paradise as a brothel (lupanar ), but perhaps Eulogius derived from him his fairer knowledge of the Qurʾanic theology of Jesus. Eulogius's friend and fellow student Alvarus attacked Islam along the same general lines in almost hysterical rhetoric based on Old Testament parallels.

Except for this use of the Old Testament, all these attacks were renewed at the Spanish Reconquest. Most medieval polemic derived from Spanish sources, supplemented, but not extensively, from the literature of the Latin states in the East. Peter of Alfonso contributed Jewish folklore to the polemic pool, but the next important step was taken when Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, visited Spain from 1142 to 1143 and commissioned translations from the Arabic, including a version of the Qurʾān (little better than a paraphrase) and one of the pseudo-Kindī. This Qurʾān circulated widely in manuscript until it was printed in the sixteenth century. Al-Kindī reinforced the libels on the Prophet with circumstantial detail of which the West had no other knowledge, and his work was circulated widely in the abbreviated form that appears in Vincent de Beauvais's encyclopedic Speculum historiale. Generally, the main polemic heads were luxuriosus (voluptuous) and bellicosus (aggressive), but Abbot Peter's own polemic, apparently never translated into Arabic, is consciously accommodating (on the information available to him) and much concerned with the authentication of scripture. The invalidation of the Qurʾān is a main theme of the mysterious Contrarietas elpholica, which Mark of Toledo translated early in the thirteenth century from an unknown Arabic original. He also made a much better translation of the Qurʾān, but it was generally ignored.

The Dominican Ricoldo da Monte Croce (c. 12431320) traveled to Baghdad (he was there about 1291), but the discussions he claims to have had with amiable Muslim divines left no mark on his polemic, derived from the Contrarietas and other inherited material. He attacks the Qurʾān as confused and obscure in ways equally applicable to the prophetic books of the Old Testament. The Quadruplex reprobatio, perhaps by another Dominican, Ramón Martí (c. 12201285), shows a detailed knowledge of genuine sources, such as al-Bukhārī and Muslim ibn al-Hajjāj, which he must have combed to find instances of Islamic jurisprudence objectionable to Christians as "contrary to reason" or "contrary to the public good," while ignoring the rest. Ramón Lull (12351315), "proving" the Trinity by "compelling reasons" in a number of works, had little impact, however. Peter Paschasius, a Mercedarian (c. 12271300), used authentic knowledge from the life of the Prophet by Ibn Isāq (d. 767) in a forlorn attempt to justify the more absurd of the Christian libels on the Prophet then circulating. These, many of them originating in the East, enjoyed a great vogue, not only in two Latin poems and a French paraphrase but also in many fragments and in chronicles, annals, and various occasional works: an assortment of recurring legends of how a fraudulent holy book was "revealed" by a pigeon or a calf, of how Muammad was the dupe of a renegade Christian monk, or was even himself a frustrated cardinal. The chansons de geste describe a pantheon of Saracen gods, but it is doubtful if they were intended as more than a joke.

Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274) advised against polemic that could not be based on shared premises. Nicolas of Cusa (14001464), although his polemic method shows no real advance, seems to be sincerely seeking conciliation in his De pace fidei. Gradually the refinement of scholarly method eliminated the worst absurdities. The greatest of the seventeenth-century Qurʾanic specialists, Ludovico Maracci (16121700), was scrupulously exact, but rigidly critical on traditional lines; his English imitator, George Sale (c. 16971736), was more sympathetic, although he is regarded by Muslims today as anti-Islamic. The old polemic lines were merely re-oriented toward the general critique of religion by the Enlightenment (e.g., Bayle's Dictionnaire, 16961697, s. v. Mahomet ; Boulainvilliers's Vie de Mahomed, 1730; Gibbon; Voltaire).

The Modern Period

Polemic revived in the nineteenth century but was profoundly modified on both sides by the colonial experience. Orientalists and missionaries alike considered themselves the intellectual and social superiors of nations ruled by Europeans. Improved historical methods introduced a new precision without necessarily changing old prejudice. Protestant missions, from the polemicist Carl Pfander (18031865) to a culmination in the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh in 1910, never escaped intellectually from the medieval polemic, but they added some contemporary social criticism, especially of the status of women in Islam. On the Catholic side we may compare Cardinal Lavigerie (18251892), archbishop of Algiers, and his alliance with the mission civilisatrice of France. Political subordination forced Muslims to take the defensive.

A nineteenth-century aggiornamento led by Sayyid Ahmad Khan (18171898), Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (18381897), and Muammad ʿAbduh (18491905) was followed by a series of apologists rather than polemicists, modernists influenced in different degrees by Western Christian, and post-Christian attitudes; among these were Muhammad Iqbal (18761938), āhā usayn (18891973), Salāh al-Dīn Khudā Bakhsh (18771931), and Kāmal usayn (19011977). The use by ʿAbbās Mamūd al-ʿAqqād (18891964) of the historical techniques of the day to refute Western Orientalism has been very influential; he respected Christ as prophet, which Tawīq idqī (18811920), in violent reaction against the missionaries, did not. Widely read by an English-language public, Ameer Alī (18491928) skillfully reversed the Christian sociohistorical attack on Islam, notably in his Spirit of Islam (1891) and his Short History of the Saracens (1899).

The English annotations to editions of the Qurʾān by Mawlānā Muammad ʿAlī (Amadī version, 1917) and by ʿAlī Yūsuf ʿAlī (Sunnī version, 1946) put forward arguments unfamiliar to Western readers; in a general way, Muslims felt that contemporary biblical criticism supported the accusation of tarīf, though Sayyid Ahmad Khan had minimized this. The Muslim Brotherhood saw itself as simply defending Islamic civilization. Rejected by most Muslim opinion at the time, ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Jawīsh (18761929) attacked Coptic Christianity as colonialist, in his paper Al-liwā, but the militant Islam of the later twentieth century, preoccupied with the struggle against the moderates, has yet to produce major polemic against post-Christian neocolonialists; it may be expected, when it comes, to have large social content. The jamāʿāt (fundamentalist groups) already hark back to Ibn Taymīyah. On the Christian side, some fanatics remain, but the tendency among Western Christians (e.g., Louis Massignon, 18831962, and Kenneth Cragg, b. 1913) is to shake free of inherited bias.

See Also

Modernism, article on Islamic Modernism.


For a conspectus of much of the field, Georges C. Anawati's "Polémique, apologie et dialogue islamo-chrétiens," Euntes Docete 22 (1969): 380392, is invaluable, but it is short and does not cover all. For medieval Islamic polemic, see Erdmann Fritsch's Islam und Christentum im Mittelalter (Breslau, 1930). A short, useful account of Byzantine polemic is Alain Ducellier's Le miroir de l'Islam: Musulmans et chrétiens d'Orient au Moyen Age, septième-onzième siècles (Paris, 1971). For Arabic polemic, the writings of Armand Abel are crucial: L'apologie d'al-Kindi et sa place dans la polémique islamo-chrétienne "L'oriente christiano nella storia della civiltà," no. 62 (Rome, 1964), and many other monographs. For medieval Christian polemic, see Richard W. Southern's Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass., 1962) and my own Islam and the West: The Making of an Image, 2d ed. (Edinburgh, 1980). For modern Christian polemic, Youakim Moubarac's Recherches sur la pensée chrétienne de l'Islam: Dans les temps modernes et à l'époque contemporaine (Beirut, 1977) spreads a fine net widely. For academic tendencies, see Jacques Waardenburg's L'Islam dans le miroir de l'Occident, 3d ed. (Paris, 1962), which studies five major scholars. There is no general survey of modern Muslim polemic against Christianity, but for India, see Aziz Ahmed's Islamic Modernisation in India and Pakistan, 18571964 (London, 1967).

Norman Daniel (1987)