To understand any phenomenon, its roots must first be understood. Unfortunately, not only do all discussions on the conflict between Islam and the West tend to be limited to the modern era, but when the past, the origins, are alluded to, the antithesis of reality is proffered: we hear that the West—itself an anachronism for Europe, or better yet, Christendom—began the conflict by intentionally demonizing otherwise peaceful and tolerant Muslims and their prophet in order to justify their “colonial” aspirations in the East, which supposedly began with the Crusades.
Bestselling author on Islam and Christianity Karen Armstrong summarizes the standard view: “Ever since the Crusades, people in the west have seen the prophet Muhammad as a sinister figure…. The scholar monks of Europe stigmatised Muhammad as a cruel warlord who established the false religion of Islam by the sword. They also, with ill-concealed envy, berated him as a lecher and sexual pervert at a time when the popes were attempting to impose celibacy on the reluctant clergy.”
That nothing could be further from the truth is an understatement. From the very first Christian references to Muslims in the seventh century, to Pope Urban’s call to the First Crusade more than four centuries later, the “Saracens” and their prophet were consistently abhorred.
Thus, writing around 650, John of Nikiu, Egypt, said that “Muslims”—the Copt is apparently the first non-Muslim to note that word—were not just “enemies of God” but adherents of “the detestable doctrine of the beast, that is, Mohammed.”[i] The oldest parchment that alludes to a warlike prophet was written in 634—a mere two years after Muhammad’s death. It has a man asking a learned Jewish scribe what he knows about “the prophet who has appeared among the Saracens.” The elderly man, “with much groaning,” responded: “He is deceiving. For do prophets come with swords and chariot? Verily, these events of today are works of confusion…. you will discover nothing true from the said prophet except human bloodshed.”[ii] Others confirmed that “there was no truth to be found in the so-called prophet, only the shedding of men’s blood. He says also that he has the keys of paradise, which is incredible.”[iii]
Muhammad is first mentioned by name in a Syriac fragment, also written around 634; although only scattered phrases are intelligible, they all revolve around bloodshed: “many villages [in Homs] were ravaged by the killing [of the followers] of Muhammad and many people were slain and [taken] prisoner from Galilee to Beth…” “[S]ome ten thousand” people were slaughtered in “the vicinity of Damascus…”[iv] Writing around 640, Thomas the Presbyter mentions Muhammad: “there was a battle [Adjnadyn?] between the Romans and the Arabs of Muhammad in Palestine twelve miles east of Gaza. The Romans fled… Some 4,000 poor villagers of Palestine were killed there … The Arabs ravaged the whole region”; they even “climbed the mountain of Mardin and killed many monks there in the monasteries of Qedar and Bnata.” A Coptic homily, also written around the 640s, is apparently the earliest account to associate the invaders with (an albeit hypocritical) piety. It counsels Christians to fast, but not “like the Saracens who are oppressors, who give themselves up to prostitution, massacre and lead into captivity the sons of men, saying, ‘we both fast and pray.’”[v]
Towards the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth centuries, learned Christians began to scrutinize the theological claims of Islam. The image of Muslims went from bad to worse. The Koran—that “most pitiful and most inept little book of the Arab Muhammad”—was believed to be “full of blasphemies against the Most High, with all its ugly and vulgar filth,” particularly its claim that heaven amounted to a “sexual brothel,” to quote eighth century Nicetas Byzantinos, who had and closely studied a copy of it. Allah was denounced as an impostor deity, namely Satan: “I anathematize the God of Muhammad,” read one Byzantine canonical rite.[vi]
But it was Muhammad himself—the fount of Islam—who especially scandalized Christians: “The character and the history of the Prophet were such as genuinely shocked them; they were outraged that he should be accepted as a venerated figure.”[vii] Then and now, nothing so damned Muhammad in Christian eyes as much as his own biography, written and venerated by Muslims. For instance, after proclaiming that Allah had permitted Muslims four wives and unlimited concubines (Koran 4:3), he later declared that Allah had delivered a new revelation (Koran 33:50-52) offering him, the prophet alone, a dispensation to sleep with and marry as many women as he wanted. In response, none other than his favorite wife, Aisha, the “Mother of Believers,” quipped: “I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires.”[viii]
Based, then, on Muslim sources, early Christian writers of Semitic origins— foremost among them St. John of Damascus (b. 676)— articulated a number of arguments against Muhammad that remain at the heart of all Christian polemics against Islam today.[ix] The only miracle Muhammad performed, they argued, was to invade, slaughter, and enslave those who refused to submit to him—a “miracle that even common robbers and highway bandits can perform.” The prophet clearly put whatever words best served him in God’s mouth, thus “simulating revelation in order to justify his own sexual indulgence”[x]; he made his religion appealing and justified his own behavior by easing the sexual and moral codes of the Arabs and fusing the notion of obedience to God with war to aggrandize oneself with booty and slaves.
Perhaps most importantly, Muhammad’s denial of and war on all things distinctly Christian—the Trinity, the resurrection, and “the cross, which they abominate”—proved for Christians that he was Satan’s agent. In short, “the false prophet,” “the hypocrite,” “the liar,” “the adulterer,” “the forerunner of Antichrist,” and “the Beast,” became mainstream epithets for Muhammad among Christians for over a thousand years, beginning in the late seventh century.[xi] Indeed, for politically correct or overly sensitive peoples who find any criticism of Islam “Islamophobic,” the sheer amount and vitriolic content of more than a millennium of Western writings on Muhammad may beggar belief.
Even charitable modern historians such as Oxford’s Norman Daniel—who rather gentlemanly leaves the most severe words against Muhammad in their original Latin in his survey of early Christian attitudes to Islam—makes this clear: “The two most important aspects of Muhammad’s life, Christians believed, were his sexual license and his use of force to establish his religion”; for Christians “fraud was the sum of Muhammad’s life…. Muhammad was the great blasphemer, because he made religion justify sin and weakness”; due to all this, “There can be no doubt of the extent of Christian hatred and suspicion of Muslims.”
Even the theological claims behind the jihad were examined and ridiculed. In his entry for the years 629/630, Theophanes the Confessor wrote: “He [Muhammad] taught his subjects that he who kills an enemy or is killed by an enemy goes to Paradise [Koran 9:111]; and he said that this paradise was one of carnal eating and drinking and intercourse with women, and had a river of wine, honey and milk, and that the women were not like the ones down here, but different ones, and that the intercourse was long-lasting and the pleasure continuous; and other things full of profligacy stupidity.”[xii]
Similarly, in a correspondence to a Muslim associate, Bishop Theodore Abu Qurra (b.750), an Arab Christian, quipped: “[S]ince you say that all those who die in the holy war [jihad] against the infidels go to heaven, you must thank the Romans for killing so many of your brethren.”[xiii]
In short, the widespread narrative that European views of Muhammad as a “sinister figure,” a “cruel warlord,” and a “lecher and sexual pervert” began as a pretext to justify the late eleventh century Crusade—which itself is the source of all woes between Islam and the West—is an unmitigated lie. The sooner more people in the West understand this—understand the roots of the animosity—the sooner the true nature of the current (or rather ongoing) conflict will become clear.
[i] Donner, Fred (ed), The Expansion of the Early Islamic State, 2008, 122.
[ii] Ibid., 115
[iii] Hoyland, Robert G, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It, 1997, 57.
[iv] Ibid., 117.
[v] Ibid., 119-121.
[vi] Bonner, Michael (ed), Arab-Byzantine Relations in Early Islamic Times, 2004, 217-226; see also John Tolan, Saracens, 2002, 44.
[vii] Daniel, Norman, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image, 1962, 67.
[viii] Sahih Bukhari 6:60:311.
[ix] Many modern academics portray this fact—that the polemics first made against Islam continued to be made with little variation centuries later—as proof that medieval Christians mindlessly copied and mimicked the early arguments against Islam without much reflection. On the contrary, because these early polemics were so comprehensive and well thought out they continue to be cited to this day by former Muslims as cause for them to apostatize.
[x] Daniel, 4.
[xi] All quotes from John of Damascus, in Bonner, 217-226.
[xii] The Chronicle of Theophanes, trans. Cyril Mango, 1997, 465.
[xiii] Bonner, 223.