Imagining Islam: The Role of Images in Medieval Depictions of Muslims
By Suzanne Akbari
Scripta Mediterranea, Vol. 19-20 (1998-9)
Introduction: On the edges of medieval Europe, there was real contact between Christians and Muslims. Multicultural, multi-religious societies existed in al-Andalus and Sicily, while cultural contact of a more contentious sort took place in the Near East. In most parts of medieval Europe, however, Muslims were seen rarely or not at all, and Islam was known only at second – or third-hand. Western European accounts written during the Middle Ages invariably misrepresent Islam; they vary only to the degree with which they parody the religion and its adherents. One might imagine that such misrepresentation is simply due to the limited information available to the medieval European curious about Islam and the Prophet. If such were the case, one would expect to find a linear progression in medieval accounts of Islam, moving from extremely fanciful depictions to more straightforward, factual chronicles. Instead, one finds accurate, even rather compassionate accounts of Islamic theology side by side with bizarre, antagonistic, and even hateful depictions of Muslims and their belief. During the twelfth century, the French abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable, engaged several translators and went to Muslim Spain to produce a translation of the Qur’an and to learn about Islam in order to effect the conversion of Muslims to Christianity by means of rational persuasion, approaching them, as Peter himself put it, “not in hatred, but in love.
During the same century, however, the chanson de geste tradition flourished in France and began to be exported into the literatures of England and Germany. In these twelfth-century epics glorifying war and chivalric heroism, Muslims are depicted as basically similar to Christians: the structure of their armies, their kings, and their martial techniques are essentially the same. The main thing that sets them apart is their religion. While the Christian knights appeal to their God and their saints verbally, without recourse to the veneration of images, the Muslims of the chansons de geste are polytheistic idolaters who worship graven images of Mahum (or Muhammad), Apolin, Tervagan, and sometimes others as well. These idols are frequently mentioned in the chansons de geste as well as in the numerous Middle English romances based upon them. They serve as a signal of the waning power of the Muslims, who turn upon their gods whenever they suffer a military defeat.
They rail at it, they abuse it in vile fashion:
“Oh, evil god, why do you cover us with such shame?
Why have you allowed this King of ours to be brought to ruin?
You pay out poor wages to anyone who serves you well!”
They tie it by the hands to a column.
Then they tear away the idol’s sceptre and its crown.
They topple it to the ground at their feet,
They beat it and smash it to pieces with big sticks.
They snatch Tervagant’s carbuncle,
Throw the idol of Mohammed into a ditch,
And pigs and dogs bite and trample it.