Mallorcan scholar Ramon Llull disputed with a Muslim scholar about spiritual matters - the true religion would be the one with the best arguments (photo: Dartmouth College Library)
Jews, Christians and Muslims

Religious Dialogues in the Middle Ages

A recently published anthology on Religious dialogues in the Middle Ages investigates the search for a religious agreement between the three monotheistic religions. By Christian Hauck

photo: Dartmouth College Library
Mallorcan scholar Ramon Llull disputed with a Muslim scholar about spiritual matters.

​​They knew they worshipped the same God, the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac, as the only God. A dialogue between Jews, Christians, and Muslims was certainly possible, but coexistence was rarely without tensions.

Despite the Enlightenment and the separation of religion and politics, the conflicts regarded as religious in the Middle Ages are still with us today. But so far very few historical investigations of the encounter between the three monotheistic religions exist.

Nine contributions in a new anthology address the topic of religious dialogues in the Middle Ages and raise questions about European identity. A few essays from the volume originated from a research colloquium at the University of Frankfurt, Germany.

The editors see a process take root in the European Middle Ages that ended with modernity and gave rise to the separation of state and religion.

Toledo – paragon of tolerance

The analyses focus mainly on the Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish city of Toledo was captured by Christian forces in 1085 after centuries of Muslim rule. Toledo is generally touted as the paragon of tolerance and the convivencia, that is, the coexistence of religions.

Concrete examples of intellectual dialogue have survived from medieval France: Petrus Abaelardus (or Abelard) wrote a religious conversation; and Petrus Venerabilis commissioned Spanish scholars to translate the Koran.

Editor Alexander Fidora investigates the intellectual backgrounds of religious tolerance in the twelfth century. Can the concept of tolerance even be used for the Middle Ages? Taking the Jewish scholar Abraham Ibn Daûd and the Christian Dominicus Gundissalinus as examples, Fidora argues that it can.

Another essay traces the story of Ramon Llull, born in Mallorca in 1232, who pitted himself intellectually as a Christian against other monotheistic religions. Muslim rule over the Balearic Islands ended only three years before Llull's birth.

For Lull an essential element of the dialogue between religions was to concede that his opponent's position could be true if it could be rationally proven. A stance still relevant today?

Dispute with the Saracenes

The essay by the Frankfurt Arab scholar Hans Daiber also deals with Ramon Llull. In 1307 the scholar sailed to the North Algerian city of Bougie to dispute in Arabic with a Muslim ("Saracene") scholar. The debate was later written down from memory – unfortunately the original Arab text was lost when Llull was shipwrecked on his return trip – and is an extremely interesting source of European intellectual history.

The dispute ended in an uproar when the representative of Islam refused to accept the Christian praise for God's trinity. Llull, imprisoned for half a year as a result, tirelessly set forth his dispute with the Muslim scholar while in prison. The outcome: Each would elaborate the arguments for his religion in a book. The true religion would be the one with the best arguments.

Hanna Kassis of Vancouver takes a look at the eleventh century in her descriptive and lucid essay. She explores how Islam symbolically and socially responded to its encounters with Christianity.

When non-Muslims greeted Muslims with "As-Salamu alaikum," that is, "Peace be with you," Islamist legal scholars decreed that the reply "And may peace, God's mercy and his blessings be with you" was to be watered down for non-Muslims.

Both contributions by Markus Riedenauer and Hermann Schrödter deal with Nikolaus von Kues and the mid-fifteenth century to the Muslim conquest of Constantinople.

Belief is not a private matter

Riedenauer never parts from his philosophical jargon, and his text may therefore discourage many readers. The second editor, Matthias Lutz-Bergmann, focuses on the theologist St. Thomas Aquinas and the second half of the thirteenth century. A research quartet from the University of Barcelona examines the Spanish translations of the Koran.

The abundance of literature cited for further reference may be helpful but is intimidating with its inclusion in page-long footnotes. Nevertheless, books like this deserve a wide public, since religious dialogue today remains a political challenge. Belief is not yet a "private matter."

Christian Hauck

© 2005

Translation from German: Nancy Joyce

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