A 13th-Century Text Teaches Us About Arabs and Europeans

A Catholic bishop’s writings reveal much about tolerance and coexistence in medieval Andalusia

A 13th-Century Text Teaches Us About Arabs and Europeans
Antique engraving depicting the town of Granada in the South of Spain / Getty Images

There has been much interest in the depiction of Arabs in contemporary Western culture and literature, whether in popular movies, newspapers or books. Concerns about negative depictions in earlier centuries, too, led to the term “Orientalist” being widely seen as pejorative. What if, however, we try to go even further back? In fact, how far back can we go? What was the earliest Western book focused specifically on Arabs and their history?

​​I did not actively set out to discover such a book but stumbled upon it by chance while I was looking into the subject of Latin translations of the Quran. Eventually I was to translate a 13th-century Latin text, “Historia Arabum” (History of the Arabs) into Arabic, as I have long believed that there should be more translation of Latin works into Arabic in general, and this work would surely be of interest to Arab readers. More recently, I have also done an English translation that had not been done before, though there have been others — one into medieval Castilian, an early form of Spanish, in the 14th century, and more recently into German, in 2006.

In the process of translation and analysis, I struggled with many questions and seeming contradictions in this work, which was unusual for its time in its apparent objectivity and use of Arabic sources. This was particularly surprising given the prologue, which primes the reader to expect a polemic against Arabs and Muslims: the threat they posed to Christendom and the destruction they caused in Spain for more than 500 years. Did the apparent inconsistency between the bulk of the book’s content and the prologue reveal something about the author’s “real” attitude toward Arabs and Muslims beneath the surface of hostility to Islam as a religion? What could the work tell us about the author’s own times? Does it have lessons for us today in an increasingly polarized world?

The earliest complete and proper translation of the Quran into Latin (the lingua franca of the educated in medieval Europe) that was generally faithful to the original was completed by Mark of Toledo in 1210 CE. Despite the relative lack of polemical influence on the translation of the text, the reasons for commissioning it were anything but an objective study of Islam. The translator tells us in the prologue that it was at the behest of Toledo Archbishop Rodrigo Ximénez de Rada, who lamented how parts of his region were being “infested by the enemies of the cross” and that they still had control of some areas in the region. Where sacrifices to Christ were once offered, now the name of “the false prophet” was extolled. Rodrigo wanted the Quran translated so that its “sacrilegious institutes and monstrous precepts” should come to the attention of true Christian believers, and he could at least try to refute the Muslims through polemic if he could not do it through arms.

It is to this same Rodrigo that the distinction of composing the first Western book on Arab history belongs. Rodrigo, who was born in 1170 CE and served as archbishop of Toledo from 1209 until his death in 1247, lived through a key period of transition in Spain’s history that saw a significant reduction in Muslim power on the Iberian Peninsula. By the time of his death, Muslim rule was largely reduced to the Emirate of Granada, which had already become a mere tributary of the Christian kingdom of Castile and had emerged from the vacuum that the withdrawal of the Berber Almohad Caliphate from Spain left behind.

Rodrigo himself played a noteworthy role in blunting and reversing the Almohads’ fortunes in Spain, as he mobilized support for Crusader campaigns against them in Iberia and participated in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 alongside King Alfonso VIII of Castile, which was a decisive defeat for the Almohads and probably the high point of Rodrigo’s career. But while Rodrigo may have contributed to the decline of Muslim influence in Spain, his own fortunes and influence within Christian Spain also went into decline, particularly in the last decade or so of his life. Besides ultimately failing in his quest to make the church of Toledo preeminent in the hierarchy of the Catholic church, Rodrigo himself ended up being exiled from Toledo by the city council amid controversies of corruption and favoritism.

Rodrigo’s primary legacy is his written output, and his main interest was in history. His first work was probably the “Breviarium Historie Catholice” (Summary of Catholic History), a book of liturgy guiding daily worship and prayer as well as a world history that begins from the time of the Creation of the world by God until the dispersal of the Apostles to preach the Gospel with the gift of languages. The work largely consists of quotations from the Bible with narrative elaborations and commentary, drawing heavily on a popular Bible companion work by the French scholar Peter Comestor. In commenting on verses of Genesis that apparently predict the rise of Ishmael (one of Abraham’s sons and the reputed ancestor of the Arabs), Rodrigo considers the later Arab conquests to be a fulfillment of the pronouncement that Ishmael will be a “wild man.” It is also here that Rodrigo first indicated his desire to write a history of the Arabs: “Concerning these things and the line of Ishmael, I have intended to follow up on the genealogy and deeds of his people in another volume if the Lord grants.”

This intention eventually came to fruition with “Historia Arabum,” which was the last work Rodrigo composed in his life, completed around 1245-1246. The book is not a standalone work but the last of a five-book “History of Spain” series, originally commissioned by King Ferdinand III and probably begun by Rodrigo in the 1230s. The first book, by far the longest with nine mini-“books” of its own, is called the “Gothic History,” telling the history of Spain from its first settlement by some descendants of Noah through the conquest of Spain by the Visigoths (a Germanic people who ultimately established their kingdom in Spain following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, ruling a united peninsula before the Muslim conquest that began in 711), then the Christian kingdoms that arose in Iberia following the Muslim conquest, which were seen as effective “successors” of the Visigoths. The entire eighth book of the series is taken up by the events of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. The last major event covered in the whole series is the Christian reconquest of Córdoba in 1236 and the conversion of its grand mosque into a cathedral.

The remaining history books of Rodrigo are in effect supplements that are intended to help the reader understand how foreign peoples have contributed to Spain’s history. In the second book, he deals with the history of the Romans; in the third book, the Vandals, Alans and Suevi (who established realms in Spain in the fifth century CE and were ultimately supplanted by the Visigoths); in the fourth book, the Ostrogoths (who ruled Italy and briefly controlled Gothic holdings in Spain through unification under Theodoric the Great); and finally the Arabs.

The “Historia Arabum” is by far the longest of these supplemental books, spanning a prologue and 49 chapters. It gives an account of Arab history that can effectively be divided into three parts: a biography of the Prophet Muhammad; a general account of Arab history detailing the immediate successors to Muhammad and the era of the Umayyad caliphate, including the conquest of Spain; and finally, a part focusing exclusively on Arab/Muslim history in Spain. This last part continues the narrative from the rise of the Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba (independent from the Abbasid Caliphate) through to its evolution into a rival caliphate, and then its final collapse in 1031, followed by the rise of the independent ta’ifa mini-states in the region, briefly charting the Berber Almoravid dynasty, which subjugated the ta’ifa states only to be eventually replaced by the Almohads (whose rise is dealt with in the Gothic history).

How does Rodrigo depict Arabs in the “Historia Arabum”? What sources did he use? The opening prologue gives a highly negative impression of the Arabs, as Rodrigo says that he will relate the “disasters” they brought, just as he related previously how Spain endured losses “in the piles of calamities.” For “532 years and beyond,” Spain was repeatedly cut apart by their sword, and only with the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa was “the sword of the Arabs blunted” and “the Gothic strength restored,” thus opening up “the paths of revenge for the Christians.” Intending to begin his history of the Arabs from the time of Muhammad, Rodrigo hopes to “uncover the savagery and cunning” of the Arabs. The reader should notice how Muhammad’s “false” revelation “bound lustful souls in knots, as it were” and so the young should learn to “abstain from fables, be bound by the cords of Adam and be drawn by the bonds of kindness.”

The biography Rodrigo gives of Muhammad, then, is intended as an “anti-hagiography.” But it is more than a simple diatribe against Islam’s founder. While Rodrigo sees Muhammad as a malicious liar driven primarily by a lust for power, the biography he presents generally marks a notable improvement on the already existing and rather extensive body of Latin literature on Muhammad.

Indeed, Rodrigo presents a rather curious amalgamation of material from different sources. On the one hand, it would appear that he was the first Westerner to make detailed use of material from traditional Islamic sources, thus recounting episodes like the splitting of Muhammad’s chest by angels to cleanse and weigh his heart, the placing of the black stone during the renovation of the Kaaba in Mecca, and the story of his night journey and ascension to heaven. Rodrigo’s accounts here bear many parallels with material going back to Ibn Ishaq, the earliest biographer of the Prophet. Rodrigo also appears to have been one of the first Latin writers to establish more clearly the significance of the towns of Mecca and Medina (Yathrib) and the link between them in the Prophet’s life, noting how Muhammad left Mecca for Yathrib as the pagan Quraysh rejected his monotheistic message, only for him to return in triumph later.

On the other hand, Rodrigo’s account also contains some basic errors and elements that would seem strange to those familiar with the Islamic sources, suggesting he was working with translated excerpts compiled by an intermediary. For instance, he gives the name of Muhammad’s father as Ali (rather than Abdullah) and places Muhammad’s birth in Yathrib. He appears to duplicate the character of Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, saying that Muhammad first worked for a wealthy widow named Hadiya before marrying Khadija and then marrying this Hadiya.

According to Rodrigo, Muhammad was supposedly instructed in secular sciences, Judaism and Catholicism by a Jewish astrologer who was a friend of Muhammad’s father. Muhammad subsequently draws on this education when he devises his religion, as he incorporates elements of both Judaism and Christianity. This element of Rodrigo’s biography is one of the many versions of the “Sergius-Bahira legend” that circulated in medieval Christian writings about Muhammad. This legend combines early Christian legends about a monk named Sergius (who taught Muhammad) and a story in Islamic tradition about a monk named Bahira who predicted Muhammad’s future prophethood. Though there are many versions, the “Sergius-Bahira legend” usually involves a non-Muslim instructor for Muhammad helping him to form the basis of his new religion, thus discrediting the idea that Muhammad received revelations from God.

The culmination of Muhammad’s career, in Rodrigo’s telling, is his elevation to become king of the Arabs, establishing his kingdom in Damascus and ruling for 10 years following a rebellion he led against the Byzantines. This element of the biography has a clearly identifiable source: the “Mozarabic Chronicle,” an anonymous mid-eighth-century Iberian text that is among the first Latin works to mention Muhammad by name and discuss Arab history in any way (it also deals with Byzantine and Visigoth history).

The “Mozarabic Chronicle,” as it turns out, forms the backbone of Rodrigo’s work detailing Muhammad’s immediate successors and the Umayyad Caliphate that followed. This can be seen in the close parallels in language and content between the two works. Indeed, in certain instances, we can identify where Rodrigo has apparently misunderstood the “Mozarabic Chronicle,” either because of poor manuscript transmission or because of difficulty in understanding the sometimes obscure and awkward Latin of the chronicle. In one memorable instance, he confuses the word “dodran” (Latin for “three-quarters”) with the name of a person and tells us that a character named “Dedran” incited rebellion during the reign of al-Walid II, thus bringing Spain into a state of turmoil.

The reliance on the “Mozarabic Chronicle” also means that Rodrigo follows the original source’s judgments on Arab rulers and governors, positive or negative. Thus, contrary to how the Umayyad caliph Yazid I is often reviled in popular Muslim memory for the killing of the Prophet’s grandson Hussein, Rodrigo tells us that he was considered “very pleasing to all,” as he never sought the glory of regal dignity but rather lived as a commoner. More glaringly, Rodrigo’s account, following the “Mozarabic Chronicle,” omits Ali’s caliphate, transitioning straight from Othman to the first Umayyad caliph Mu’awiya. Rodrigo informs us of Ali and his caliphate later, in Chapter 18, while relaying an erroneous account that the rival Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties originated from the offspring of Ali and his wife Fatima.

Occasionally, some information is used from sources besides the “Mozarabic Chronicle”: For example, Rodrigo narrates the legend of “Solomon’s table” found during the Muslim conquest of Spain, a story found in Arabic though not Latin sources. Sometimes, Rodrigo confuses information from different sources. The most notable example is when he tells us that “Zama” (al-Samh bin Malik al-Khawlani, an Umayyad governor of Spain) was killed during a failed siege of Toulouse in France, an account he takes from the “Mozarabic Chronicle.” He then tells us that the caliph sent a person named “Azham filius Melic” to govern Spain, providing information on him attested in Arabic sources. Azham filius Melic is the same person as Zama, but Rodrigo does not realize it.

If positive judgments of Arab and Muslim rulers seem rather sparse in this section of the work, they become much more common in the third major section, devoted to independent Umayyad Spain, which is also the most mysterious in terms of its sources. For example, Rodrigo tells us that the Umayyad Emir Hisham I “peacefully governed the whole land with justice and affection.” His successor al-Hakam I favored the poor in many of his judgments, worked to keep criminals in check and generously gave alms. Abd al-Rahman III, who established the independent Umayyad caliphate, governed with justice and sound judgment, and so on. The picture that emerges here is far more nuanced than the impression given by Rodrigo’s prologue, which could lead the reader into thinking that Arab history in Spain consisted of nothing but destruction and disaster. It is also clear that the history Rodrigo documents in this section is more than just Arab history in Spain: the Berbers emerge as a distinct group and faction who influence politics, as do the “eunuchs” — an apparent mistranslation of the Arabic term “fityan,” which refers to ex-slaves of Slavic origin who also came to have an influential role in politics and governance, including the establishment of the ta’ifa states.

The puzzle here is the sources Rodrigo is using. In general, his writings on Muslim Spain do not have any clear parallel in Latin works, though Arabic sources can offer some clues. In one memorable example, following the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate in Córdoba, a certain individual named Umayya asks the people of Córdoba to make him ruler. They tell him that the city is in a state of disturbance and that they fear he will be killed, to which he replies: “Obey me today and kill me tomorrow.” The anecdote, intended to illustrate how love of power brought about the destabilization and collapse of the state, has a direct parallel in the words attributed to him in Arabic sources: “bay’iuni al-yawm wa uqtuluni ghadan” (pledge allegiance to me today and kill me tomorrow).

But Rodrigo shows only superficial understanding of Arab history beyond Spain and after 750, unaware, for example, of rivals to the Abbasids such as the Fatimid Caliphate. On this basis it is very unlikely that Rodrigo was drawing on any Arabic work covering general Arab history, as he would show a more detailed knowledge of events outside Spain. Perhaps the most likely suspect is not a single source but a compendium, given that a lot of medieval Arabic history survives in this form whereby quotations are taken from different sources to present different versions of events.

One possible example is the “day of the ditch”: a massacre of the rebels of Toledo during the reign of al-Hakam I, supposedly involving the digging of a ditch and the dumping of the rebels’ bodies into it after they were beheaded at a banquet to which they had been invited. Rodrigo covers this incident in two chapters, and there are multiple accounts of it in Arabic sources. While Rodrigo’s version does not precisely match a single Arabic account in all the details, it is closer to the family of versions linked to Ibn al-Qutiya (a 10th-century Andalusian historian and grammarian) and other writers than the family of versions linked to Ahmad al-Razi (a 10th-century historian who wrote a history, continued by his son Isa, of the Umayyad rulers in al-Andalus). In this case, comparison is partly enabled by surviving fragments of a compilation work by Ibn Hayyan (a prolific Andalusian compiler and writer of history). That work is called “al-Muqtabis,” and one could suppose that Rodrigo made use of it. However, more portions of it and other lost works would need to be recovered to enable firmer conclusions in that direction.

Regardless of the mystery of Rodrigo’s precise sources, the mere devotion of a book to Arab history, the repeated and extensive use of information coming from Arabic source materials and the general objectivity of much of this work are remarkable, especially in comparison with other medieval works. But does the uniqueness of this text and its approach show something similarly distinct about the author’s attitude toward Arabs and Muslims? In other words, does it demonstrate a tolerance and openness toward them?

There are two competing views on these questions. One is to say that the apparent objectivity of the “Historia Arabum” should not obscure the author’s undoubted hostility to Islam (as illustrated in the Muhammad biography and the purpose of commissioning a translation of the Quran) and a generally negative view of Arabs and Muslims, as outlined in the prologue. This reading highlights the need to consider the work in the context of Rodrigo’s bigger history of Spain project, the largest of which — the “Gothic History” — culminates in the recapture of Córdoba, thus cleansing the city “from the filth of Muhammad.” Furthermore, it draws attention to Rodrigo’s career and his participation in the Crusades in Iberia. To the extent that the “Historia Arabum” seems objective, it is argued that this derives from uncritical use of information from Arabic source material, not a real attitude of tolerance. In the view of some scholars, Rodrigo wanted to expel Muslims from Spain because he saw them as foreign invaders: In effect, his attitude was the precursor to the expulsions and forced conversions that targeted Jews and Muslims in the post-1492 era in Spain after Muslim sovereignty came to an end.

The contrasting view argues that Rodrigo believed in “tolerance” in a limited and relative sense, even if he wanted to see an end to Muslim sovereignty in Spain. In this reading, when Rodrigo offers words of praise for Arab and Muslim rulers, he does so because he wants to point out good examples for kings to follow, underlining his view of history as serving a didactic purpose as he outlined in the prologue to his “Gothic History.” Further, it is argued that he sees the Arabs in Spain as at least being part of Spain, such as when he speaks about the “Spanish Arabs” or at the end of the book about the “Vandal Arabs” (i.e., Arabs of al-Andalus, based on an etymology of al-Andalus, in effect recognizing their distinctness from the Berbers of North Africa and Arabs of the Middle East).

The concept of “tolerance,” though, is itself liable to misrepresentation in discussions about medieval Spain, especially the parts under Muslim rule. One often hears complaints of a “myth of the Andalusian paradise,” based on a supposedly multicultural and harmonious example for today’s world in which Muslims, Jews and Christians got along. While this conception may exist to some degree at a popular level, few modern scholars of medieval Spain would uphold it. “Tolerance” is rather understood here as allowing for some kind of coexistence even as one group asserts its dominance. In the case of Muslim-held Spain, Christians and Jews were, in general, second-class citizens (“dhimmis”) but were tolerated in the sense of being allowed to practice their religion and retain their property. In effect, one could apply the same reasoning to Christian-held parts of Spain and argue that what Rodrigo envisioned was a dhimmi status for Muslims (and Jews): subordinate to the ruling Christian authorities but allowed to practice their religion and retain their property.

The evidence seems to point in this direction, regardless of whether one reads Rodrigo’s praise for Arab rulers in the “Historia Arabum” as reflective of his own views. While Rodrigo’s hostility to Islam is clear, it is not necessarily any more hostile than his attitude toward Judaism. Rodrigo not only called Judaism the “Judaic perfidy” in this work but also wrote (or at least claimed as his own) a much earlier work dedicated to refuting Judaism: the “Dialogus Libri Vite” (Dialogue of the Book of Life). Yet the practical record shows Rodrigo not only had dealings with the Jewish community in Toledo but also sought to protect them from mob violence and harsher measures imposed by the Catholic Church’s central leadership. One could argue that he was driven in this regard by his own business and political interests, but this pragmatism is to be contrasted with an approach to forms of Christian “heresy,” which would have to be wiped out. The terminology of “heresy” is applied neither to Judaism nor in general to Islam: It is clear that Rodrigo did not view Islam as simply being some kind of Christian “heresy.”

Perhaps the prologue of the “Historia Arabum” itself shows the limited “tolerance” Rodrigo envisions, because after mentioning the opening of the ways of revenge for the Christians, he declares:

“Just as from the beginning they oppressed the Christian inhabitants under the burden of tribute, so also they now live in accustomed servitude under tribute following the restoration of the fortifications to the Christian leaders.”

These relative and nuanced understandings of “tolerance” and “coexistence,” of course, should not obscure the very real oppression that could and did come with second-class citizen status, whether in Muslim-held Spain or Christian-held Spain. It is therefore correct to caution against upholding these experiences as good examples for today. The reality is that “coexistence” and oppression can exist together at the same time. Even in the present setting, one sees attempts (such as in the Israeli-occupied West Bank or Turkish-occupied Afrin in Syria) to uphold coexistence as a cover for the realities of occupation and discriminatory systems. At the same time, the “Historia Arabum” and what it reveals about Rodrigo’s time are also good lessons against the tendency to polarized judgment that one sees in today’s popular discourse: Neither romanticizing nor absolute condemnation is called for, but rather a more objective understanding of history.

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