Mano a mano in Espana and al-Andalus

Spain as a Christian-Muslim Frontier

Let me begin rather abruptly with a paradox. One of the remarkable differences between Christians and Muslims in medieval Spain has to do with conversion. While the Muslims made no special efforts in that direction, they did manage to convert large numbers of Christians; the Christians, on the other hand who did try to proselytize in Spain, had no great success in persuading Muslims to become Christians.

We must be a little more nuanced than that, of course. Christian conversions to Islam invariably followed in the wake of a politico-military conquest, and if the Muslims made no apparent effort to proselytize their new subjects, there were abundant reasons to persuade the Mozarab to change his uniform and play for the other team. When the tide was reversed and the Christian kingdoms of Iberia overran Muslim Spain in the thirteenth century, it seems highly likely that the same outcome would have occurred, that the Muslim population living under Christian sovereignty would eventually have  converted to Christianity, and for many of the same reasons the Christians became Muslims four or five centuries earlier. It did not happen that way, as we all know. The Christians had not the patience to wait two centuries or more for Richard Bulliet’s curve of conversion to start rising. They revoked the dhimmas they had granted to the mudéjars before the ink was dry. They opted, against their own stated principles, for coerced baptism and then could not abide the religious perjury they themselves had encouraged. The result was, in the end, a Christian Spain, but at a price of which we are all aware.

Why were the Muslims so willing to wait for the Christians to turn Muslim and Christians so impatient with their mudéjars? My time is short but let me suggest what may not be causes of the difference but are certainly symptomatic of it. First, unlike the protection extended to the mudéjars,  the dhimma status granted to Mozarabs, indeed to all “submitted” Christians and Jews, is irrevocable, whether in the eighth century or the thirteenth or the twenty-first. While it suited the Spanish princes that the mudéjars be protected—from conversion, that is—it could never and would never suit the Church, not certainly in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries.

The matter of the dhimma is of enormous import, of course, but I am more interested here in another element that separates Christians and Muslims. From the beginning Christianity has been possessed by a missionary impulse, that is, by the imperative, enunciated by Jesus himself, to preach the Good News, to go forth and convert all nations. Muhammad’s own missionary work at Mecca was a notable failure; simply preaching the word nearly cost him his life. It was only at Medina and only after the military experience of Badr Wells, when spiritual submission to God began to follow upon political submission to Muslim armies, that the movement began to spread. The Prophet sent forth armies but he never sent his disciples to preach to the Bedouin; it was the tribes who sent delegations to him requesting conversion.  During Muhammad’s lifetime and thereafter conversion to Islam followed upon conquest; it never preceded it. Christians meanwhile had converted anywhere from 10% to 20% of the Roman Empire before Constantine became a Christian. Christian missionaries often preceded armies; they leaped across frontiers, worked behind the enemy lines deep in Germany or Central Asia or India.

That Christian missionary impulse, with Roman authority behind it but never ahead of it, had converted all of the Mediterranean basin by the mid-seventh century, when Muslim armies tore the southern half away, most of it forever. In Spain, however, the two armies and the two ideologies came to stasis: Muslims and Christians faced each other across a frontier. This Spanish march between Muslim and Christian, for as long as it lasted, displayed many of the characteristics of a classic frontier. Not only was it movable; it was also permeable. It was a hybrid ground, filled with both cowboys and Indians, who stole, or woed, each others squaws and cowgirls; there were gunslingers like the murâbitûn and hired guns like El Cid. It was a labile and infectious terrain, a military, political and religious minefield. The Spanish frontier was at the same time a war zone and a place where truce, if not peace, might be made.

If the Christians were elsewhere willing to pursue the unbaptized into their last remote outback, they thought differently of the Muslims. From the time of their first encounter across a political border in Syria in the eighth century, Christians had shown as little inclination to cross the frontier and proselytize abroad as the Muslims did. Christians living under Islam were strenuously forbidden to do so, of course, and those on the other side of the frontier, while they polemicized against Islam,  showed no enthusiasm for going and preaching the Gospel to the infidel on his home turf. Except in Spain and not until the mid-twelfth century. The Iberian political frontier between Christendom and, I’m sorry, Islamdom, always porous, always permeable, finally collapsed at Las de Tolosa in 1212, but its destruction had already been signaled by the fall of Toledo in 1085. In 1229 James I began the assault that would sweep the amirate of Valencia and the Balearics, with their large Muslim populations into the Crown of Aragon. Buoyed by political and military success and  a reformed and invigorated Church,  there was about to unfold what Robert Burns has called “the dream of conversion.” And now they had the weapons.

These were important events, but there were other more grave portents of a change in the weather. The very notion of a crusade, publicly announced ten years after Toledo, was, among other things, a statement of a newly discovered moral righteousness on the part of the Church, and the expression of a conviction not only that the Muslims should be taken but that they could be taken.  The Church girded for war. War, as we know, promotes enormous advances in technology, and the Christian holy war known as the crusade directed first against the Muslims in the Holy Land, then against the Manichean Cathars in Languedoc, and finally against the Muslims in Spain brought on line a whole generation of news weapons for the defense of Christendom and the Christian faith. The middle decades of the twelfth century saw the creation of military orders, disciplined monks in arms vowed to perpetual crusade against the infidel in the Holy Land. And when that crusade proved to be somewhat less than perpetual, they pursued the infidel in other venues across the Mediterranean from Rhodes to Spain and even against the startled pagans in Lithuania. The Muslims had their own version of these military orders—whether before or after the Christians does not concern us here: the men of the ribâts, the murâbitûn, were Islam’s monks under arms. I shall return to them shortly.

Spain’s own military orders, the Knights of Calatrava and Santiago chief among them, were effective weapons in the defense of the faith. But only in the pushing and shoving of field warfare. There were more potent missiles waiting to be launched.  The beginnings of the thirteenth century also saw the creation of the so-called mendicant orders. The Spaniard Dominic de Guzman founded the Order of Preachers or Dominicans to carry the Gospel, with simplicity and yet with learning, to the Cathars, and the Italian Francis of Assisi founded the Friars Minor  or Franciscans, though it might be more accurate to say Francesco simply  stood there and the Franciscans rapidly collected around their charismatic and evangelical hero. Both the new monastic orders were stamped with papal approval two or three years after Las Navas de Tolosa, and shortly thereafter both were deployed on the Spanish frontier with Islam.

Spiritual men and women of the generation of Dominic and Francis were deeply engaged by the idea of the crusade. Their monastic vocation did not permit them to take up arms, as it did the Templars and Hospitalers, but the heretics and infidels might be fought with other weapons, by the word as well as by the sword, as the Albigensian crusade had shown. Or failing that, one might at least gain the palm of martyrdom. There is a long list of holy men, stretching from Francis of Assisi at the beginning of the thirteenth century to Ignatius of Loyola in the middle of the sixteenth (when the Protestant Reformation gave the alpha saints something else to think about) who attempted to get to the Holy Land to convert the Muslims or better, to convert one very big Muslim whom the others would follow into the Church, or to die in the attempt. Some, like Francis, made it—he got to preach, without effect, to al-Malik al-Kamil in Damietta in 1221—and some did not, like Ignatius who after a mere three weeks in Jerusalem in 1523 was sent packing by the local Franciscans, whom he frightened—the first but not the last time that Franciscans were frightened by a Jesuit.

The thirst for martyrdom, which was operating on both Francis and Ignatius and made thirteenth century Franciscan willing to court death at Muslim hands, is another note that separates Muslims from Christians. The Muslim no less than the Christian believes that someone who does for the faith will enjoy Paradise, but unlike Islam, Sunni Islam, at any rate, Christianity early on developed a cult of the martyrs, a formal liturgical acknowledgement of the heroism of those who had died not fighting for the faith, as in a jihâd, but for confessing the faith. Paul proudly numbered the beatings he had received at the hands of his fellow Jews, and Nero bestowed the martyrs’ crown on him and Peter, the two paladins of Christianity, by executing both men in Rome in the 60s.

The Roman martyrology, a roll call of the Church’s early martyrs, was standard reading in all monastic houses, and thirteenth century Franciscans, whose founder had suffered the symbolic martyrdom of the stigmata, were deeply imprinted with the ideal. A number achieved it, in Muslim Valencia, Seville, Tunis and Marrakesh, by preaching the gospel or, if that failed sufficiently to stir their listeners, by defaming the Prophet. Whatever we may think of such behavior, and in modern times the Church itself had expressed its disapproval of provoked martyrdom, it signaled a powerful incentive in the Christian missionary enterprise in the Iberian peninsula and North Africa.

Most Franciscans went abroad to preach to Muslims for another reason, however; it was their profound conviction, which is the essence of Franciscanism and which they had seen confirmed  among their fellow Christians, that living the Gospels in all their profound simplicity would draw others to follow the Gospels. But what worked in Western Europe did not on Muslims who not only possessed a highly-focused alternative view of Jesus  but were immune to the Christian’s flawed version of the Injîl, of which they were ignorant in any event.  

The Dominicans approached the missionary enterprise from a somewhat different direction. Their method was characterized by preaching, both popular and learned, and was accompanied by a remarkable program of preparation for the mission to Islam. Ramon Lull is thought to have become a Franciscan tertiary at the end of his life, and indeed, he does seem to have been on the trail of a provoked martyrdom, unsuccessfully, it appears. But his relentlessly intellectualistic approach to the conversion of Muslims, his insistence on Arabic language preparation for the task and his conviction that there was a conceptual ground on which Christian and Muslim might equably meet, are pure Dominican in spirit and execution.

They are by no means the same thing, cultural preparation for the conversion of Muslims and the belief that souls might be won by argumentation from commonly held premises, but the Dominicans explored both: under the direction of the canon lawyer Ramon of Peñaforte they opened Arabic language schools in Tunis and in Spain, prepared bilingual vocabularies for the missionaries as well as handbooks of polemic—Ramon Martí de Subirats is the name to be reckoned with here—and in Aquinas’ Summa contra Gentiles made a least one practical attempt—Lull’s Ars universalis seems to have overwhelmed both its author and itself—to map the intellectual ground upon which Christian and Muslim might discourse.

The Dominicans’ efforts, like the Franciscans’, did not meet with much success—and let us not forget that their aim was not, any more than Lull’s was, to reconcile Christians and Muslims but to convert Muslims to Christianity. The thirteenth century missionary enterprise gives off an occasional whiff of ecumenism but at its heart it was a missionary enterprise. And even the indefatigable Lull came to the reluctant conclusion that Islam would have to be pried open by force and not simply argued into the faith. By the 1300s most would probably agree. Just as the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 had ignited Christian expectations of a new triumphalist era in the face of Islam, the fall in 1291 of Acre, the last Christian foothold in the Middle East, doused them.

The issue here is not so much the success or failure of the Christian missionary attempt at breaching the Spanish frontier but what the effort and its methods say of the two principals. The willingness to take up what must have longed seemed a hopeless project signals, obviously, a new Christian self-confidence. That surge of Christian aggressiveness toward Islam that began with Peter the Venerable’s translation project in 1142 has been charted and well documented. After the collapse of the Almohads there were mendicant order missionaries—air-dropped, so to speak, across the frontier—in many of the major cities of Muslim Spain and North Africa. Marrakesh had a bishop, as did Tunis. Would-be missionaries readying themselves for the next drop by studying Arabic and reading the Quran in a Cluniac course-pack that included a life of the Prophet and selections from the hadîth.

None of these latter activities were undertaken from a disinterested search for knowledge, of course, or even mere curiosity about the manners and customs of the Muslims. But it should be remarked that, if not in Spain, then elsewhere in Europe, in the new universities of Paris and Oxford and in Italian medical schools, Christians were reading Averroes and Avicenna for enlightenment alone and, who knows—this is now the optimistic teacher talking—perhaps even for pleasure. The works of Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd, the luminaries of what we sometimes fancy as an Almohad renaissance, had little effect in their own environment: most of their readers, as it turned out, were in the faculty of arts at the university of Paris.

The thirteenth century crossing of the frontier was remarkably one-sided. There were no Muslim missionaries dropped into Barcelona or Salamanca, no murâbitûn learning Latin or Romance in Marrakesh or Fez, or in Tunis down the block from the Dominicans’ studium arabicum. It was not for lack of Muslim interest in Christianity, a polemical interest to be sure. Ibn Hazm’s knowledge of Christianity and Judaism was as polemically edged as Ramon Marti’s was of Judaism and Islam. The  real difference between the two men was that Ibn Hazm was also a courtier and a poet and man of letters while Ramon Marti was a Dominican: he was a professional missionary whose vocation and sole intent was to make Muslims into Christians and, moreover, was willing to die in that cause.

If Islam did not share Christianity’s missionary impulse and its thirst for a martyrdom in the cause of confessing the faith, it did have what are arguably religious orders in the form of Sufi tarîqas, and some at least of those Sufi brotherhoods were instrumental in spreading Islam inside other frontiers. The Chishtis among the Hindus in India and the Bekhtashis among the Christians of the Balkans. What distinguished the Chishtis from their fellow Sufis: like the Franciscans, they completely rejected the ownership of property and lived entirely on alms. “Trust in God” was their byword, a trust that permitted them to accept initiates even before the latters’ conversion to Islam: formal conversion should follow spiritual conversion, they felt.  Their accommodating attitude made the Chishtiyya enormously popular in the pluralistic religious environment of India. Both their mystical theology, with its natural inclination toward an Ibn Arabi-type pantheism and their relaxed posture—what many would call their carelessness—toward the niceties of Islamic observance fashioned the Chishti tarîqa into a kind of osmostic surface through which local Hindu practices and beliefs passed into popular Islam and, of course, eased the way for the Hindus themselves to become Muslims.

Another Sufi accommodation with similar results took place in the Ottoman Balkans. Sufism ran through the Ottoman domains in as many varieties as Christianity, but the dominant “way” (tarîqa) in the Balkans, and in Turkish Anatolia, during the fourteenth to the eighteenth century was that of the Bektashis.  Their tekkes or lodges were popular, folk institutions that gave little formal attention to either theology or the mysticism that characterized earlier Sufism. In the more rural and provincial areas of the Abode of Islam, of which the Balkans were a prime example, the tekkes became the equivalent of the parish church, and its leader, the baba, in fact, if not by anointing, the local clergyman. Where Islam spread among the Christians of the Balkans, it spread largely through the ministrations of the Bektashiyya.

This is conversion through accommodation, and, it took place, of course, after Muslim armies had guaranteed Muslim sovereignty over the land. Neither tarîqa sent their friars across the frontier. There were no Bekhtashis in Vienna. Nor was anyone empowered to send them. While the Sufi contribution to the spread of Islam seems most often like an unintended consequence, the mendicants in Spain and elsewhere were literally on a mission, that is, they were sent.  The Franciscans and Dominicans were disciplined and organized bodies of men, corporate in structure, international in scope and centralized in authority; highly mobile and highly flexible in deployment since they were removed from the local jurisdictions of bishops and princes. The Jesuits were simply an improved model, stripped of even their monastic obligations and with a special vow of obedience to the pope. There is no analogue in Islam, either in the structure of a tarîqa, in the authority to command it or even in the desire to use it.

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