De Statu Sarracenorum: A Curious Medieval Christian Depiction of Islam and Arab History
Of the various surviving medieval Christian Latin texts that discuss Islam and Arab history, the tract De Statu Sarracenorum (‘Concerning the Status of the Saracens’), attributed to one William of Tripoli (Latin: Guilelmus Tripolitanus), stands out as one of the most interesting examples, both for the grander narrative view of Arab history adopted in the text as well as the author’s view of Islam and its relationship to Christianity.
The alleged author himself, as his name suggests, was from the town of Tripoli in what is now northern Lebanon. Tripoli in the time of the alleged author was the centre of the Crusader state known as the County of Tripoli, which included parts of what is now Lebanon and Western Syria. William was a member of the Dominican order (‘the order of preachers’) and based out of a priory in Acre (currently located in Israel).
Besides the De Statu Sarracenorum, another work attributed to William of Tripoli is the Notitia De Machometo (‘Notification Concerning Machometus’). However, it has been more recently suggested that the Notitia De Machometo is the work of William of Tripoli whereas the De Statu Sarracenorum is actually a later anonymous summary and revision of the Notitia De Machometo. Regrettably, I do not have access to the full text of Notitia De Machometo, but Jeremy Daniel Pearson, whose doctoral thesis at the University of Tennessee in 2018 concerned William of Tripoli, has convincingly argued against the hypothesis that the De Statu Sarracenorum is a pseudepigraph.
The De Statu Sarracenorum can be divided into three parts: (i) a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, (ii) a general overview of Arab history up to the time in which the author says that he is writing (1273 CE), and (iii) an examination of Islam as a religion, but focusing in particular on references to Jesus and the Virgin Mary in the Qur’an and thus providing a strategy for how Christians might wish to try to win over Muslims to Christianity. Quite remarkably, the author claims at the end of his work to have converted more than 1000 Muslims. The work is also of note for the recipient named at the beginning of the work: namely, an archdeacon who later became Pope Gregory X of the Roman Catholic Church.