“Concerning the Sect of Machomet”: An Outstanding Medieval Latin Refutation of Islam?
The Great Orientalist Who Wasn't?
The works produced on Islam during the Middle Ages vary considerably in quality and accuracy, bordering on the fantastical in the case of the Vita Mahumeti attributed to Embrico of Mainz to a more detailed picture contained in Rodrigo Ximenez de Rada’s Historia Arabum, which still has multiple inaccuracies in covering the life of Muhammad. This work, however, entitled “Concerning the Sect of Machomet” (De Seta Machometi) has stood out for its apparently impressive use of the Qur’an, Sira and hadith collections of Muslim and al-Bukhari for its information on Islam.
The work can be divided into two main parts. The first part of the work attempts to refute Islam on four grounds. True prophets, the work argues, are defined by four characteristics: (i) they must be truth-tellers, (ii) they must be morally upright, (iii) they must perform miracles and (iv) the law they bring must be good. After providing a brief overview of Muhammad’s origins and the beginning of his prophethood career, the work argues that Muhammad had none of the four characteristics but rather their opposites: (i) although he told some truths in his teaching such as according the exalted status to the Virgin Mary among women, he also told many falsehoods such as denying Christ’s crucifixion, (ii) he engaged in much immorality, such as taking multiple wives and lying carnally with many of them in one night, while also taking war spoils and booty, (iii) he performed no miracles, while the claim of some Muslims that Muhammad split the moon is not supported by any evidence and (iv) he taught many immoral precepts that go contrary to God’s law, such as permitting polygamy and concubines and allowing for coetus interruptus. The first part then rounds off with the end of Muhammad’s life.
The second part of the work is devoted to refuting the idea common among Muslims that the Torah and the Gospel became corrupted over time, turning the tables to argue that a reading of the Qur’an should actually require belief in their non-corruption. Further, other lines of evidence confirm that the Torah and the Gospel have not been corrupted.
Who was the author of this work? As contained in the earliest surviving manuscript of the work, there is no author mentioned, but the work has been attributed to an individual called Ramón Martí, who was a Dominican from the Catalonia region and lived in the thirteenth century. According to Josep Hernando, Martí was born in around 1230, and took up the Dominican habit and then apparently resided in Paris for a time. He was then directed to the study of languages and appears to have spent time in Tunisia studying Arabic and Islamic culture. After returning from Tunisia, Jaime I of Aragón entrusted with him with studying the Jewish books. Martí died in 1284-1285.
The primary reasons, according to Hernando, for attributing the De Seta Machometi to Martí include (i) that he is also known to have authored a work called “Against the Saracens” (Contra Sarracenos), (ii) an uninterrupted bibliographical tradition from the beginning of the 15th century CE that identifies him as the author of an anti-Islamic polemical tract and (iii) the parallels between this work (NB: specifically in its second main part) and the “Explanation of the Symbol of the Apostles” (Explanatio Symboli Apostolorum), which is another work by Martí. Indeed, Hernando suggests that these two works can essentially be seen as one whole.
Regardless of the question of authorship, I must admit that as I translated this work, I was initially taken aback by the seemingly in-depth knowledge and use of the Qur’an, Sira and hadith collections of al-Bukhari and Muslim. Most of the relevant citations for comparison were pointed out by Hernando in his edition of the Latin text and his accompanying Spanish translation of it. I have included these references too though note that there are some apparent errors in Hernando’s citation of hadiths for comparison. I have corrected these and also provided online links for the hadiths to be compared with their citation and discussion in this work. There is, to be sure, the occasional slip-up in the Latin text, but on the whole the work’s use of Islamic sources is very precise.
This use of sources in turn raises the question of whether the author himself had access to these original sources, independently and meticulously searching through them to find relevant points with which to disprove Islam. The likely answer however appears to be more sobering. Even without further knowledge of the author’s possible original source, one thing that would seem to tell against independent research on the hadith collections in particular is that he does not seem to realise that “Bochari” and “Moslim” (among the various ways of transcribing these names in this work) are names of the compilers of the hadiths cited, not merely titles given to Islamic holy texts/books. Had the author known that these two men were compilers of sayings and deeds attributed to Muhammad and his companions, he would surely have mentioned that point in his work.
As it turns out, the four-fold refutation and the relevant citations of Islamic texts that form the central substance of the four-fold refutation are not original. Instead, they seem to derive from an earlier Arabic-language Christian work that was written in the thirteenth century CE. That work appears to have gained some circulation in the context of a brief period of Christian emancipation from the dhimmitude status in the Levant region on account of the Mongol conquests in the latter half of the thirteenth century. However, the work does not survive in full but is rather preserved partially in quotation from the work of Najm al-Din al-Tufi, a Hanbali jurist who wrote a book entitled “al-Intisarat al-Islamiya fi Kashf Shubah al-Nasraniya” (“The Islamic Victories in Exposing the Doubts of the Christians”).
The derivation of the Latin’s works arguments and source citations from this Arabic work is quite convincingly shown by Pieter Sjoerd Van Konigsveld, who has compiled the surviving fragment quotations of the Arabic-language Christian work as preserved in al-Tufi’s work and provided the English translation of those quotations, while noting the Latin parallels. I will not go into a detailed paragraph-by-paragraph comparison as this has already effectively been done by Van Konigsveld, but here I will provide sample quotations of the surviving parts of the Arabic with my translation (highlighted in bold), alongside my translation of the corresponding parts of the Latin work (highlighted in italics):
قال: وفي سورة البقرة: نساؤكم حرث لكم فأتوا حرثكم انّى شئتم. قال: في النفسير: يعني من أي وجه شئتم مقبلة ومدبرة. قال: وهذا تعليم تستنكف منه البهائم، فضلا عن ان الله يعلمه خلقه
“He [the polemicist] said: and in Surat al-Baqara: your women are a tilth for you, so enter your tilth when you wish…in the tafsir of this: it means from any side you wish, front and fact…and this is a teaching from which the animals refrain, let alone that God should teach it to His creation.”
Machomet said in the Alcoran, in the tractate of the Cow: “Your women are your business, therefore enter to your business in whatever way you wish.” Here says the gloss of the Saracen expositors of the Alcoran about this word: “In whatever way,” namely, from the front and back. The intellect manifestly understands that this detestable disgrace and this burdensome mispositioning are against God and against reason.
وذكر أحاديث العزل عن النساء. قال: وهو ان يجامع الرجل ثم يعزل ذكره عن فرجها فيلقى المني خارجاً. قال: وهو قبيح رذل عار على فاعله.
And he [the polemicist] mentioned the hadiths of withdrawal from the women [coetus interruptus]. He said: and it is that the man has intercourse then withdraws his penis from her vagina, so he spills the semen outside…and this is a disgraceful ugly deed that is shameful for the one who does it.
The law concerning the pouring out of semen outside the due vessel. Machomet allowed and permitted his people to be able to lie with their women such that they could pour the semen outside the due vessel. And regarding this are many stories and sayings of Machomet in the books that are called Muzlim and Bochari.
وقال: فمن ذلك حديث البخاري عن أنس قال: كان النبي يدور على نسائه في الساعة الواحدة من الليل والنهار وهن إحدى عشرة قيل له: وكان يطيقه؟ قال: كنا نتحدث انه اعطي قوة ثلاثين.
And he [the polemicist] said: so from that also is the hadith of al-Bukhari on the authority of Anas who said: the Prophet would go round to his women in one hour of the night and day and they were 11 in number. It was said to him [Anas]: and he was capable of that? He said: we used to say he had been given the strength of 30 men.
For it is said in the book that is called Buhari, in the chapter of Bathing, that the son of Melich said that Machomet would go around his wives lying with them in one hour of the night or day. They were 11. And thus it was said to this man: “Could he really do that?” He said: “We would say to each other that the power or strength of 30 men was given to him, that is to Machomet, in sex.”
Besides these parallels in the main substance of the Latin work, the hypothesis of the reliance of Martí (assuming he is the author) on the Arabic-language Christian source also explains the apparent oddity in the opening section of the citation of Ibn Rushd, which seems out of place in an overview of the true nature of prophethood that is dependent on the Bible. This is to be contrasted with the discussion in the Arabic-language Christian source that made use of the works of Jewish and Islamic philosophers. Further, one should note the seeming oddity of the Latin work's citation of the "Ciar" when it means the Sira (سيرة) of the Prophet, to be compared with the reference to كتاب السير in the original Arabic source. That is, both sources are using the plural form of the Arabic word سيرة as though it is referring to a single book.
In short then, the image of the intrepid medieval orientalist- a forebear, one might argue, of the later Orientalist oddballs (“eccentrics…motivated by a passion for knowledge,” as Nibras Kazimi might put it)- may turn out to be a disappointment. Even so, the Latin work’s apparent reliance on a contemporary Arabic-language Christian polemic against Islam is itself fascinating.
I would like to dedicate this translation, overview and commentary to Carl Yonker and Joel Parker, two monstrous academic friends who have been very supportive of my work over the years.
Below is the original Latin text with my translation and accompanying footnotes. Note that for the sake of authenticity I have largely preserved the original Latin transliterations of Arabic terms and names.
Concerning the sect of Machomet or concerning the origin, progress and end of Machomet and the four-fold refutation of his prophethood
Concerning the sect of Machomet
In order to show that Machomet was not the prophet or messenger of God, as asserted by the Saracens, who perish miserably following the blasphemies and errors of that man, it should be noted that the Lord, speaking about the false prophets and warning the faithful to beware of them, said according to what is contained in Matthew: “Beware of the false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but internally they are rapacious wolves: by their fruits you will know them.”[i] Here the Lord does three things. First, he warns the faithful to be on guard against false prophets when he says: “Beware of false prophets.” Second, he shows what they are like in their exterior and interior natures when he says: “Who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but within they are rapacious wolves.” Third, he shows by what signs they are to be known so that they should thus be on guard against these people as he adds: “By their fruits you will know them.”
So that we may attain the knowledge of those fruits more easily through declarations of their contrary things, we can say that the prophet or messenger of God, who wants to show the truth of his prophecy or mission in such a way that those to whom he is sent cannot resist concerning this thing or reasonably doubt it, should have four things which are seemingly fruits or signs, through which a true prophet or messenger of God can be recognised and discerned from the false prophets or messengers, who do not have those four signs or fruits but the contrary things.
The first sign is that he should be a truth-teller. And this can be shown through reason and authority. Reason is such: God is the great, simple and pure truth, therefore from Him falsehood cannot come forth. Therefore the prophet or messenger sent by him, in so far as he is such, cannot say anything else besides that which has been inspired or mandated by the one sending him, and this can only be true. Therefore the word of the prophet or messenger should be true; otherwise it is to be determined that he is not a prophet or messenger of God. By Authority: through that which is said in Deuteronomy 18, at the end, where the Lord shows a sign through which the false prophet can be known, as He says: “If you respond with quiet contemplation: how can I understand the word which the Lord did not speak? You will have this sign: that which that prophet has foretold in the name of the Lord, it will also not have turned out to be. The Lord did not say this, but the prophet fabricated it through the swelling of his own mind, and therefore you will not fear him.”[ii]