A Medieval Debate for a Modern Audience

by Noah Delwiche ’17

Tracing the arc of cross-cultural religious debate and transmission is no easy task. Steeped in controversy, confusion, and charges of heresy, many medieval texts show impassioned debate among clergy over the status of ancient and established religions: their metaphysical claims, histories, prophets, and detractors.

DOML volumes

DOML volumes in Byzantine Greek, Medieval Latin, and Old English

For the better part of the last two months, I have been tasked with reviewing a volume of Medieval Latin texts, primarily critical poems or accounts refuting opposition to Catholic dogma, that show the reception of Islam through the prophet Muhammad among Byzantine clergy and scholars in the 8th to 13th centuries. Broadly speaking, the upcoming volume in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library aims to offer a picture of Christian-Islamic relations in Medieval Europe.

Although centuries removed, the texts are apt for a modern audience. Taken together, the works show the seeds of skepticism within the Byzantine Empire towards Muhammad and Islam. These accounts, written by clergymen and monks, cast the central prophet as a swindler in cahoots with a devious mage and others, in order to systematically critique the religion’s commitment to monotheism or unconfirmed miracles.

My take is, of course, no stunning revelation. By design, the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library aims to publish an array of Medieval Latin, Byzantine Greek, and Old English texts, the spines of which are not pre-destined to the dark annals of analog libraries (you can still find them there if you are so inclined) but reach the homes of teachers and casual readers. Established in 2010, the library, which has published over thirty volumes, seeks to attain a harmonious balance of accessibility and integrity. The intertextual translations do not strive to displace critical commentaries. It is within this context, then, that undergraduate interns can be of use.

Editing the volume on Christian depictions of Muhammad has presented a number of fascinating questions concerning translation and transmission. My goal—to help soften literal, dense, and tangled translations while ensuring the accuracy of modern transmission—has led to a healthy dose of head-scratching. To what extent should the English translation of inaudita convey novelty or moral opprobrium? How should Latin idioms about marriage and sex be conveyed in English? And what words best depict the vile crimes and tricks the texts charge against Muhammad?

What I have found most fascinating with the volume, though, are not the mechanics of the translation—an interesting topic in its own right—but the recurrent and varying themes of fear towards the prophet Muhammad. To these Byzantine authors, Muhammad was, more or less, a charlatan: motivated by avarice and pride, manipulative towards the uneducated, and shameless in disrupting ancient customs. The texts, to be sure, are hardly univocal in tracing the worship of Muhammad and the origins of his alleged trickery. Some place the prophet’s famed development several centuries apart. Others provide varying accounts of the trickery that establish the prophet as King. Still, many share common threads, weaving and re-weaving similar attacks. In earlier, shorter polemics, Catholic authors told of Muhammad’s quick rise to power through deception, and his subsequent punishment by the divine with the curse of epilepsy. Nonetheless, the prophet continued on a path of debauchery, the authors related, simultaneously degrading morality and sexual mores.

To modern sensibilities, the polemics within the volume fail to meet many standards of civility. Tangled in the detachment of far-removed experiences and myth, many texts rely on dubious sourcing. And yet, despite the critical outlook on Islam, the upcoming volume offers more than offense. In it, one finds the roots of religious debate and resentment, the careful art of philosophical and personal attack, and the enduring question of what makes a prophet holy.

Within a contemporary setting, the volume uncovers with no restrictions a framing of Western fears of Islam reliant upon attacks and tropes that are not so unfamiliar. In all, the volume shows the messy fear of a prophet with new ideas and culture. A work for a modern world, indeed.


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