Keynote Lecture by Professor Kurt Villads Jensen at Dangerous Religious Other Workshop

Living between religions. Competition and cooperation in medieval Mediterranean multi-religious societies

Kurt Villads Jensen, Stockholm University
Resume of presentation at the workshop DANGEROUS RELIGIOUS OTHER, Turku 5-6 October 2017

The relations – good and bad, mutual acceptance or mutual exclusion – between the three big Abrahamic religions were formed in the Middle Ages. The discussions between Judaism and Christianity about common ground and decisive differences began already with the definition of Christianity in the New Testament, within the first one and half century AD, but with the establishing of Islam in the 7th century Christianity was challenged by a new, vigorous, and military successful interpretation of faith. The following will attempt to outline some of the main areas of disagreement, but also of dialogue, between members of the three religions. The examples will be from the Christian perspective, for linguistic reasons but also because it is the tradition with which I am most familiar.

Problems with God
Fundamentally, the problem is God. Per definition, God must be eternal and immoveable and above human world and static, but He must also in some way or another enter into the created world, as all three religions agree. God must reveal Himself, either through the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), through Jesus or the New Testament, or in the Quran. These three solutions to the same problem create other discussions: Has Messiah come or not, will the Kingdom of Messiah be political or only spiritual, how human can God become – can we make pictures of Him or not – and how exclusivist is He actually? Can there be any salvation outside one’s own faith?

The relationship between the three revelations was understood differently within the three religions in the Middle Ages. To Jews, the Torah is the divine revelation that existed before the creation of the world and has later been explained and discussed in Talmudic scholarship, while the New Testament and the Quran are not of God. To Christians, the Torah as well as the rest of the Old Testament is God’s revelation, but the correct and full understanding of it is only revealed through the New Testament and through Jesus who is un-created and existed before time. The Quran was understood by most Christians as a mock Gospel and the creation of man and not God. Muslims claimed that God’s revelation had been given to the Jews, who corrupted the words of it. Therefore a second revelation was given to the Christians, but also they falsified the words or at least the interpretation of it, so a third and final revelation was necessary, that is the Quran. Which is the word of God and has existed before creation.

Such theoretical problems have always given rise to practical problems. To which extent are religions defined by beliefs or by practises, and how big variation in rituals can be accepted before it is no longer the same faith. Who should control cult places and sacred sites, and can they be shared with members of another religion? Are the religious and political spheres intertwined so that one government means one religion, or can one ruler be ruler over more religions.

In the Middle Ages, religious indifference – what today is often called tolerance – was extremely unusual and normally only found in pagan societies with less centralised organized cults, such as the pagans in Northern Europe or the Mongols in the 13th century who for almost one hundred years accepted members of any religion to the highest administrative and military positions, no matter whether the Khan was shamanist, Buddhist, Christian or Muslim. In Christian and Muslim societies, on the contrary, religious discrimination towards minorities was the norm, as it would probably also have been the case in societies governed by Jewish rulers, but such societies did not exist in the Middle Ages.

Legal status – differences and adaptations
Law was closely connected to religion and in that sense not built on human consensus, as is the case with modern positive law. Religious minorities in the Middle Ages normally preserved their own jurisdiction in private matters, concerning marriages and inheritance. Nevertheless, religious communities often slowly adapted to the practises of the majority. It was sometimes stated directly, as when the Nestorians under Muslim rule in Baghdad around 900 changed their inheritance rules to become closer to the Muslims’, “among whom we live, and because we fear to seem too different from them.”

In mixed legal processes, it was totally normal that witnesses from the majority religion counted double as much as ones from other religions, so that a Jew needed 12 witnesses to swear he was innocent, while a Christian needed only 6. It reflects a society discriminating religiously, but also according to status. Even among Christians, some needed much fewer witnesses than other, for example members of the largest guilds in the cities.

Within legislation about warfare, there is a clear, but under-researched influence across religious lines. Muslim rules for sharing war booty, derived from the Quran, was taken over by Christian rulers on the Iberian Peninsula, and the Christian criteria for just and holy war that were systematised in the 12th century are exactly the same as those for formalised jihad, finally collected in the early 14th century.

Tolerated minorities
The concepts of ‘Tolerated minority’ is most developed formally within Islam, but know in practise in the other two religions also. Muslim rulers should accept Jews, Christians, and Sabeans to live in their society, because they were all ‘people of the book’, that is they had received the divine revelation in an earlier version. Non-Muslims were obliged to pay a special tax, the jizya, and in periods many Muslim societies also imposed a special tax on new converts to Islam, the kharaj, especially in the first couple of centuries after the rise of Islam.

Within most Christian societies, especially in the Latin West, it was unthinkable that Muslim could settle and continue in their own religion. However, when Christians conquered Muslim lands in the Middle East or Iberia, they suddenly got huge Muslim populations that could not be expelled or killed, and they were allowed to continue living as Muslims, but also had to pay a special tax.

The Jews had a special position as the only fully recognized protected minority within Christianity, for two theological reasons. One was that they should live in diaspora and misery as an illustration that Christianity was superior to Judaism, another was that St. Paul had prophesised that the last rest of Israel will convert at the second coming of Christ. Some Jews must be left, if not they could not convert. Pogroms against Jewish communities were certainly not unheard of, but in principle they were protected by the Church.

Various Christian denominations could sometimes have great troubles in living together. With the Reconquista of Spain from the 12th century onwards, Catholic crusaders persecuted also the old Mozarabic Christian communities that had lived in Muslim Spain for 400 years, so many Mozarabs fled to Muslim North Africa to be able to continue their traditional way of being Christians. In the crusader states in the Middle East, many of the missionaries from the Western Europe actually worked more among the Eastern Christians than among Muslims.

The term of convivencia – living together – has become much disputed in recent scholarship. Some scholars use it to designate the good will to live together in mutual understanding and respect, others the lacking ability to kill all the others and therefore the forced acceptance of various religions in the same territory.

In practise, religious border societies have normally accepted various ‘in-betweeners’ who could operate and had important functions within more religions. On the Iberian Peninsula, Jews often functioned as middle-men when Christians and Muslims negotiated exchange of prisoners of war. In Baghdad in the 9th century, Eastern Christians translated scientific literature from Greek to Arabic, and in Western Europe Christian theologians studies Old Testament Hebrew with Jewish teachers.

Convivencia became more important in a longer time perspective, and perhaps even came to be felt more natural. In crusader Jerusalem, even the extremely religious and devoted Order of the Templars could have allied and sometimes friends among Muslims. Local Templars had to apologize to Muslims that foreign Templars who had recently come from Western Europe, were rude and interrupted Muslims praying in the Templar church. New Templars did not yet know how to behave in Jerusalem. Such examples are seldom, compared to the many of warfare and hostilities, but they do exist and affirm that coexistence among religious warriors in some places and for some time could be possible.

Shared cult sites
A number of sites were places of veneration for more than one religion, simply because they shared a veneration for the same persons. The tombs of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and of prophets were visited by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Sometimes they made a schedule so one religion came on one day, the other on another day, but most commonly they actually used the places together, and at the same time.

Other sites housed relics of different persons that were venerated by different religions. The great mosque in Damascus holds the head of John the Baptist, holy to both Christians and Muslims, but it is also the place where the head of Hussain rested for maybe hundreds of years, before it eventually was brought back to Kerbala where Hussain had been martyrized in 680. The mosque in Damascus is therefore an important place of veneration for Shia Muslims. It also holds the tomb of Saladin (died 1193) who is not a religious figure, but because of his victories against the crusaders and his conquest of Jerusalem in 1187, he is one of the greatest heroes in Islamic history, especially for Sunni Muslims.

Other cult sites have been redefined by each of the three religions. One of the religiously most loaded is the Temple square in Jerusalem and what is not the Dome of the Rock Mosque. In Jewish tradition, it is the mountain of Moriah where Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, but also the place below which King Salomon hid the Arch of Covenant; to Christians it is the stone upon which Jesus was standing when he ascended to heaven 40 days after the crucifixion, and to Muslims it is the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven to get instructions about Islam from God.

Some cult places have been parallel, so that they have been used at different times by different religions, and others have been shared, so that believers from various religions have celebrated together or at least participated in the ceremonies of each other. On Good Friday, all candles are put out in the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and Christians of all denominations hold vigils and pray with candles in their hands until sometimes before Easter Sunday morning, one candle is miraculously lit by itself and can be used to lit all the others. This miracle began early in the Middle Ages and is still happening today, and it has traditionally been watched by numbers of Muslims who have joined the Christians in the church.

Segregation and contamination
In spite of all the common grounds, the religiously mixed societies have also very often operated with a strict segregation according to religious criteria. The cities and bigger towns often had market places divided into three or four parts for the different religions, separated by fences and guarded gates between them. The cities were often divided into religiously defined quarters, so that for example all Jews lived in one part and Christians in another.

Members of minority religions were regularly demanded to wear certain marks or clothing so that they could be easily recognized. In 1215, it was decreed by the great church meeting in the Lateran that Jews in Christian countries should wear a clearly visible yellow, circular cloth mark, which symbolised the silver money that Judah had earned by deceiving Jesus and handling Him over to be crucified. In some Muslim countries, it was decided that Jews and Christians should wear turbans or sometimes belts in distinct colours so they could be recognized by Muslims.

The main reason for segregation was a fear of contamination. Exposed to members of another religion, weak souls may begin faltering in their beliefs. It did not have to be connected to sermons or discussions, the sheer physical contact was dangerous. In Spain, Jews milked their Christian slave nannies dry at Eastertime to ensure that their children did not drink milk with any traces of the Easter Eucharist. Heresy and other religions were often compared to cancer in a body member – it would spread and infect the entire body of believers, if it were not cut off and burned immediately.

Sex across the religious borders was normally strictly forbidden, but difficult to regulate. One way to warn against getting too close to the others was to describe them as sex monsters and bestial – Muslims are only interested in anal sex, with men or women; male Jews are menstruating, and Christian monks are spending their time in delightful defloration of young innocent girls. Such mutual incriminations were extremely common and also functioned in simply de-humanizing members of the other religions. In spite of that, cross-confessional marriages were not totally uncommon and could even sometimes be part of dynastic alliances or peace treatises among rulers. Muslim women married to Christians would have to convert to Christianity; Christian women married to Muslims would sometimes converted to Islam, but could also often continue to practise Christianity for themselves, but not for their children.

Christianity and Islam are missionizing religions with a religious obligation to help individuals to salvation by converting them to ‘the truth’, as was the common shorthand among the Christians for Christianity. Judaism was and is less concerned with mission, but in mixed societies with religious discussions, it did happen that individuals converted to Judaism.

Mission could be done peacefully or with various means of pressure. Constant discussions aimed at defining the exact border line between persuasion and force, because forced conversion is in principle and theologically impossible in all three religions. In practise, some theologians within Christianity and Islam came extremely close to allowing to let subdued enemies choose between converting or being killed, but in principle all warfare and violence aimed at creating peace for the missionaries to preach and let the Word work.

In Christian dominated areas, Muslims and Jews were sometimes forced to gather in the local churches and listen to Christian missionary sermons. Sometimes religious dialogues were arranged in which theologians from two religions had to discuss which one was best. It is difficult to estimate whether this was actually common practise, or only a genre in missionary literature, but it happened sometimes. In cases where we have both a Christian and a Jewish report of it, they have different conclusions as to who persuaded whom about his own religion’s superiority.

Medieval Christian missionary manuals recommended to begin with the top layers of society. If rulers converted, the people would follow. It was also generally recognized, that the nearer, the more difficult they are. It means, that pagans were the easiest to convert to Christianity, Muslims are more difficult and Jews even more difficult, because they are closer to Christianity. The most difficult are other Christian denominations, e.g. it is almost impossible to persuade the Greek orthodox that the Latin rite and dogmas are the truth.

Mission could be by word, and therefore it was important to find a common ground of authorities that the other also accepted. If discussion with other Christians, it did not work to cite one’s own church fathers, but only the bible. With Jews, you could only refer to the Old Testament, not the new. With Muslims, natural law that all humans have to live under.

Mission could also be example, that demonstrated the firmness of religious conviction. At periods, it became popular to become martyr for the faith, and the missionaries would seek the holy places of other religion and blaspheme them as violently as possible, until they succeeded in being killed for Christ. It happened in Spain around 850 where ca 55 Christians targeted attacked the Muslim authorities and became martyrs, in spite of the Christian church leaders telling them to calm down and not disturb the precarious balance in religious living together. In the 13th century, it was especially Franciscans who went to Muslim countries and entered the mosques to blaspheme Muhammad. Some were executed, some were protected by local Muslim authorities and sent back home with the argument that they were obviously lunatics and not to be taken seriously.

It is difficult to measure the success of medieval mission. Without the backing of secular authorities and segregating legislation, it does not seem that missionaries converted others in great numbers, but the sources are difficult to interpret.

Studying the others
It was clearly possible to live in religious mixed societies without learning very much about others and their beliefs, but with missionary movements nevertheless came an interest in collecting more information. It was normally for polemic purposes, with better knowledge about a religion it was easier to argue against it.

Christian study of Judaism and Islam has being pursued from the beginning around the Mediterranean, building on a combination of religious texts, in translation or original, and older polemical authorities. The Quran was probably translated into Greek already in the 9th century, perhaps in Damascus, but it does not seem to have gained a wide circulation. Some Eastern Christians in especially Syria studied the Quran in Arabic and wrote polemical treatises against Islam that were later translated from Arabic into Latin.

Studies of the others accelerated in the 12th century, because of the expansion with crusading and because of a general scientific change of paradigm with a new emphasis on textual criticism, rationalism, and empirical knowledge. Language schools were founded, especially in Spain, offering teaching in Arabic and Hebrew as preparation for missionaries, and the Quran was translated into Latin in 1143. In an extremely polemic and philologically not very satisfactory version that became widely copied and later printed and the Western Europe’s main entrance to the content of the Quran until the 1690s. Christian theologians also began studying other Jewish texts than the Old Testament and discovered, to their great chock, the Talmud and its anti-Christian polemic content.

In the 12th century, Islam began to be classified by Christians as a heresy within Christianity, and Judaism was considered split between the real, Old-Testament Jews and the new, heretic and modern Talmudic Jews who could be persecuted for attacking Christianity.

Studies resulted in voluminous treatises about the others, arguing from Scriptures and modern Aristotelian logic. Much concentrated on the Trinity, that is how to understand God as one, but also revealed at a concreate point in history, and also working throughout history and still today. It included the attempts of proving to Jews that Messiah had already come in Jesus, and to Muslims that Mohammad could never have been a prophet sent from God.

The corresponding Muslim studies of Christianity concentrated very much on demonstrating how the bible had been corrupted through time, and how Christians did not live according to the morals that they preached.

Who studied whom? It seems that Christians were much more interested in Judaism and Islam than vice versa. Judaism was a problem, because Jews did not reach the same conclusion in reading the Old Testament as the Christians did, and Jews did not recognize that Christianity was a valid and true fulfilment of what Judaism was in incipient and imperfect form. Christians were on the other hand much occupied with Islam, exactly because Muslims claimed to have fulfilled the message that Christians had only transmitted in corrupted and imperfect form.

For Jews, Christianity was not of great interest theologically, because it was one minor sect among so many others that had misunderstood the Torah. For Muslims, Christianity was a stage passed and over, from which nothing could be learned, and which posed no theological challenge compared to the many internal, competing understandings of Islam.

Who lived with whom? The practical life was often much more varied and changing than much of the official theology. Most of the religiously mixed societies around the Mediterranean oscillated between accepting religious minorities and allowing them a certain degree of self-government and free cult, and on the other hand to impose burdens upon them if form of taxation and stigmatization, often followed by segregation. And the communities of believers acted correspondingly, sometimes fighting and persecuting each other, sometimes sharing cult places and practises.


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