Early Christian Responses to the Advent of Islam
When the armies fueled by Islamic expansionism swept out of the Arabian peninsula into the Eastern realms of the Christian Empire in the middle of the seventh century C.E. Christians in general (even the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox who in some cases welcomed the Arab armies as liberators from a century of deprivations visited on them by the Chalcedonians) reacted with what can best be described as incredulity. Seventh century Christendom operated with a near monolithic mindset that assumed the triumph of the Christian faith. Islam came in this case as an invasion not only of armies, but ideology, offering an alternative religious vision that Christians found difficult to categorize, particularly those Christians in the western reaches of the Empire who were not in the path of the conquering armies. R.W. Southern labels this initial response of Western Christians to the rise of Islam an “ignorance of confined space.”
This is the kind of ignorance of a man in prison who hears rumors of outside events and attempts to give shape to what he hears, with the help of his preconceived ideas. Western writers before 1100 were in this situation with regard to Islam. They knew virtually nothing of Islam as a religion. For them Islam was only one of a large number of enemies threatening Christendom from every direction, and they had no interest in distinguishing the primitive idolatries of Northmen, Slaves, and Magyars from the monotheism of Islam, or the Manichaean heresy from that of Mahomet.
This remained the situation through much of the early part of the Middle Ages which gave Western Christians a creative license to indulge their fantasies about a religion and culture about which they knew next to nothing. This was not the case in the East where Christians experienced Islam not only as the faith of an invading army, but within a relatively short span of time the dominant faith of an Empire that would subvert the Christendom paradigm and relegate its Christian residents to dhimmi status.
The prominent eighth century theologian, John of Damascus, was one of the earliest Eastern Christian writers to study Islam which he did from a unique perspective as an administrator for the Caliph in his Damascus palace. John’s study would lead him to the conclusion that Islam was a Christian heresy, which by its very classification assumes a common deity. This is seen clearly in a section of his Fount of Knowledge dedicated to the Islamic ‘heresy’ in which he counters Islam’s rejection of incarnational theology by using the Qur’anic reference to Word and Spirit. It is an argument that only makes sense if Muslims and Christians are speaking of the same God:
. . . we say to them: ‘As long as you say that Christ is the Word of God and Spirit, why do you accuse us of being Hetaeriasts? For the word, and the spirit, is inseparable from that in which it naturally has existence. Therefore, if the Word of God is in God, then it is obvious that He is God. If, however, He is outside of God, then, according to you, God is without word and without spirit. Consequently, by avoiding the introduction of an associate with God you have mutilated Him. It would be far better for you to say that He has an associate than to mutilate Him, as if you were dealing with a stone or a piece of wood or some other inanimate object. Thus, you speak untruly when you call us Hetaeriasts; we retort by calling you Mutilators of God.
John’s accusation of Islamic heresy, with its assumption of a distorted view of the God Christians meet in the incarnate Word, would re-appear much later in western sources, after western Christians themselves began to study Muslim sources and hear Muslim stories first through travelers and crusaders heading east, then through access gained to the rich cultural heritage of Islamic Spain in the years when Catholic rulers began what they labeled the reconquista which reached its goal of Christian domination in the fifteenth century. Prior to this – during the time defined by the “ignorance of a confined space” – western perceptions of Islam more often than not took on the form of invented narratives that associated Islam with known idolatries or located it in apocalyptic schemes.
The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) was one of the first western Christians to record his impressions of this upstart religion and its adherents whom he and others of his era called “Saracens.” While at times suggesting that they were a “quasi-Christian” cult, Bede also associated them with idolatry as he did in his commentary on Acts 7:43. This verse mentions a time when the Israelites lapsed into idolatry worshiping Molek and “the star of Rempham.” This star, Bede explained, “is Lucifer, into whose cult the race of the Saracens is enslaved in honor of Venus.” Here was the accusation of idolatry that would continue to inform western Christian perceptions of Islam in other eras and in other ways, an accusation in this case that had more to do with a felt need to give biblical definition to an unknown entity than an attempt to understand what Islam actually taught about God. And this, according to John Toland, would come to shape western Christian perceptions of Islam for the next several centuries.
Over the next several centuries, the authors north of the Pyrenees who have anything to say about Islam will (with few exceptions) describe the Saracen invaders in the same way: a violent scourge of God, vaguely associated with idolatrous cults.
Norman Daniel, whose book, Islam and the West, stands alongside Tolan’s book and Southern’s book as a definitive source for our knowledge of early Christian perceptions of Islam, suggests that while Tolan’s perception is more or less correct for the earliest western perceptions of Islam, that, in fact, for most of the Middle Ages “educated mediaeval writers” were well aware that Muslims were monotheists (sans a Trinitarian lens). He goes even further to say that this has been the default position of most educated Christians even in eras of great conflict.
It has always been perceived, even by its enemies, that the essential message of Islam is to proclaim the unity of God. It has also been admitted at least that this was always the ostensible purpose of the Prophet’s mission. Educated medieval writers fully understood this, although there were poets who spoke of the ‘worship’ of Muhammad, and of other idols, probably because they were not concerned with facts at all; there were soldiers who fed their hate by believing that their enemies were idolatrous; occasionally there were serious writers who knew better but carelessly repeated false or exaggerated statements. The supposition of idolatry in Islam was very rare among the educated, and perhaps did not exist among the learned.
What Daniel and Southern reveal in their work is what Toland acknowledges in his – that western Christian perceptions of Islam, including accusations of idolatry, had less to do in the years prior to the Reformation with a studied reflection on Muslim teaching than with polemics fueled by the Islamic conquests, first at a distance, then by the Crusades with their demand for an otherized enemy:
Armed with self-righteousness, the Christian soldier could strike with a clear conscience, knowing that he was fighting for Christ against paganism.
This background is crucial to understanding the development of the earliest Protestant perceptions of Islam as this was the legacy inherited by Martin Luther. He, too, formulated his perceptions of Islam at a distance, albeit a distance shortened by the very real threat the Ottoman Turks posed to European Christian hegemony. It was only three decades before Luther’s birth that the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople (1453). And this was just the beginning of a westward surge that reached its apex under Suleyman the Magnificent in the 1540s, during the last years of Luther’s life. Islam in this case was experienced by western Europeans as it had been experienced by Christians in the eastern part of the empire in earlier years – as an existential threat.
The threat that the Turks posed to Christian Europe in the first half of the sixteenth century was unprecedented. Never before had the Latin West, except when they invaded Muslim lands during the heyday of the crusades, been so close in physical proximity to the Muslim world.
As would be expected in such a context of conflict, Luther was quick to condemn Islam even as he sought to understand it in a way that western Christians in earlier generations hadn’t. He condemned it as a Satanic threat, joining the voices of those who tied Muhammad and the ‘imposture’ he created to an apocalyptic scheme that united Catholics and Muslims as the two personifications of the anti-Christ. “The Pope,” said Luther, “is the spirit of the anti-Christ, and the Turk is the flesh of the anti-Christ. They both help each other to choke [us] the later with body and sword, the former with doctrine and spirit.”
This allowed Luther, like the crusaders of an earlier era, to feel justified in urging Christian resistance not only to the physical, but also the spiritual threat posed by the Ottoman invaders:
. . . in battling the Turks one was fighting against an enemy of God and a blasphemer of Christ, indeed, the devil himself.
Given this combative stance, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Luther was eager to learn all he could about Islam from its sources. That was a difficult task at the time, as very few Islamic writings had been translated into Latin much less the vernacular, which meant that Luther’s sources tended to be polemical Christian writing. But it was more possible for him than previous generations due to the growing availability of the first Latin translation of the Qur’an dating back to the work of a twelfth century British monk named Robert Ketton. This was hardly an objective work as Ketton’s Qur’an came complete with mini commentaries in the margin pointing out to the reader the “insanity” “impiety” “ridiculousness,” “stupidity,” “superstition,” “lying” and “blasphemy” of the text. But it did for the first time give western readers access to the book upon which Muslims built their faith system. Instead of hearsay, rumors and fabrications, Christians could now access (albeit in a poorly rendered, polemically drawn translation) the primary text of Islam.
It was not easy for Luther to get his hands on this translation which he attempted to do as early as 1530. “Although I have eagerly desired for some time to learn about the religion and customs of the Muhammandan . . . I have tried in vain to read the Coran itself.” When he finally did obtain it twelve years later he was disappointed to find that it was what he declared to be a ‘poor’ translation. But having no other options at this point (beyond the polemical texts of the few Christian authors to whose works he also had access) Luther made this his primary source for assessing the religion of the enemy at the gates.
For the purposes of this paper what is most interesting about the perspectives Luther developed as he dug into his less than perfect sources was his assumption that Muslims spoke of the same God as Christians did, albeit in a highly distorted and non-salvific form. This is seen primary in the arguments Luther developed to refute Muslim teaching as they only make sense with the assumption of a common deity. Among these arguments was one that brings to mind John of Damascus’ attempt to convince Muslims that the Qur’anic identification of Jesus as a word from God can only be interpreted through a Trinitarian lens:
Citing sura 3:45 and 4: 171 where Jesus is identified as the word from God, it [Luther’s Verlegung] began by boldly stating that Muhammad ‘confessed to be sure, that Christ is God’s word.’
Other arguments Luther made to counter Qur’anic teaching make the same assumption: Muslims and Christians are speaking of the same deity. Hints of this belief are also found om other places in his writings about Islam including this quote:
All who are outside of the Christian Church, whether Turks, Jews or false Christians and hypocrites, even though they believe in and worship only one true God, nevertheless do not know what his attitude is towards them. They cannot be confident of his love and being.
What is notable here is that Luther is not affirming Islam even though he acknowledges a common monotheism. The issue for him was not alternative gods, but the Muslim perception of God. To Luther this perception was so diabolically distorted that it was, in the words of Adam Francisco, “tantamount to idolatry” even as it remained monotheistic in its foundational teaching.
The point here is to note that Luther’s line of reasoning in his theoretical debates with Muslims (“theoretical” as there is no evidence that Luther ever actually met a Muslim) depend on an assumption that Christians and Muslims are speaking of the same God in different ways. The Muslim denial of the Trinity was in this sense “tantamount to idolatry”, but not actual idolatry as would be the case if Muslims were worshiping a totally different divine entity. It is, as Colin Chapman says in his treatment of this issue, like two groups of people trying to make sense of the sun. One group sees it through clouds, the other through clear skies. They have different perceptions of the sun, but are essentially dealing with the same entity. And that, according to Luther, was the fatal flaw of Islam. They couldn’t see God for who he really is. His true nature was hidden behind a dark cloud created by Muhammad’s ‘imposture.’
John Hubers is an ordained pastor in the Reformed Church in America who has served as a senior pastor in RCA churches in Michigan, New York and Texas. He also was pastor of three international congregations in the Arabian Gulf states of Oman and Bahrain. From 2001-2006 he was the supervisor of the Global Mission program of the RCA in the Middle East and South Asia. For the past six years he has been teaching Christian Missions at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa after obtaining his PhD from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in the area of Global Mission and World Christianity. For the past two years he has also been serving as director of NWC’s global education program.
 R.W. Southern, Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 15
 Cited in http://www.stpeterslist.com/11698/islam-as-a-christian-heresy-8-quotes-from-st-john-damascene-a-d-749/
 Ibid, 73
 Ibid, 74
 Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Oxford: One World Publications, 1960), 60
 Toland, 123
 Adam S. Francisco, Martin Luther and Islam: A Study in Sixteenth –Century Polemics and Apologetics (Leiden: Brill Publications, 2007), 64
 This word makes a constant appearance in Christian assessments of Islam related to Christian perceptions of the role Muhammad played in creating it throughout the Middle Ages and into the late 19th century. This was particularly true after the publication of a “Life of Mahomet” by Humphrey Prideaux (which will be cited below) as this was the term he used to describe the Arabian prophet. Few Christian writers after Prideaux would mention the name of Muhammad and Islam without the use of this term.
 Luther quoted in Francisco, 83
 Ibid, 77
 Tolan, 156
 Francisco, 96
 Ibid, 103 As to how Luther realized it was a poor translation is anybody’s guess.
 Ibid, 203
 Ibid, 120
 Chapman, 228