Riccoldo and Islamophobia 

By Spahic Omer

(Summary: This article analyses the Islamophobic views (radical anti-Islamic polemics) of Riccoldo da Monte di Croce. Riccoldo’s case was unique in that he spent around twelve years in Muslim lands, preaching the Gospel of Christ to non-Christians, heretics and errant Catholics. He learned Arabic and studied Islamic texts right in Muslim institutions of learning and with the help of Muslim teachers. The article debunks the myth that Riccoldo was an expert on Islam, on account of which he extensively polemicised against it. Rather, he was an Islamophobe (in the medieval embryonic sense of the word) whose sole ambition was to nullify and destroy the “perfidy of Mahomet and his Saracen (Islamic) law”. His knowledge of Islam was fake and exaggerated, meant but to bolster his bigotry and narrow-mindedness. He often resorted to superficialities, manipulations and outright forgeries. His extremist and clearly erroneous views are the strongest evidence against him and his unduly embroidered reputation.)  

Riccoldo da Monte di Croce (d. 1320) was an Italian Christian missionary and apologist. His hostile theological polemics against Islam and Muslims was seminal in the literature of medieval Christian polemics. It also played a role in nuancing the Muslim-Christian relations of the day.

So extreme, unrestrained and, at the same time, influential were his views on Islam that his case stood at the core of the nascent developments of Islamophobia, both as an idea and a palpable reality. In passing, the concept of Islamophobia – as the excessive and empirically unjustifiable fear, hatred of, or bias against Islam, Muslims and Islamic civilisation – is just a new term for a centuries-old phenomenon whose spirit is always one and abides; what changes are forms, linguistic expressions, intensities and some other minor temporal variants.

Riccoldo was a member of the Dominican Order (the Order of Preachers), which was established in 1216 by Saint Dominic (d. 1221), a legendary Spanish priest. The main objective of the Order was to preach the Gospel to the world and to fight heresy worldwide, producing a remarkable intellectual (and theological) heritage and a plethora of scholars in the process. The members of the Order were in the forefront of the Christian apologetics, polemics and global evangelisation work. Generally non-Christians, heretics and errant Catholics were targeted. Encouraged by the lasting effects of the Crusades (1095-1291), the scope of the movement was increasingly widened and its engagements internationalised. 

Riccoldo was an outstanding friar and brother (member of the Order). Having received a papal approval to preach in 1286 or 1287, he embarked on a journey for a pilgrimage in the Holy Land, which was still partly under the crusaders and the Second Kingdom of Jerusalem (Kingdom of Acre). After the pilgrimage, in 1288, he proceeded further East for his missionary work. His focus was Iraq whose major city Baghdad and the capital of the Abbasid caliphate had barely 30 years ago been ravaged by the Mongols.

About his mission, Riccoldo explicitly said that he intended to nullify and destroy the perfidy of Prophet Muhammad and his false law (Islam). He revealed, addressing God directly: “For a long time I presumptuously thought that I could fight him (Muhammad) by means of your force and nullify his pernicious doctrine. It is for this reason that I voluntarily accepted this mission through obedience to your vicar and went to the most distant parts of the East.”

He furthermore wanted to do so right in Islam’s and Muslims’ midst. Such efforts and subsequent victories were bound to be sweeter and more fulfilling. His dedication and fervour were sacrifices- and sufferings-blind. He said: “Since we desired to nullify the perfidy of Mahomet, we intended to confront them in their capital and in the place of their studium generale (international institutions of learning).

Riccoldo’s mission in the East lasted about twelve years, until 1300, after which he returned to his native Florence, Italy. The undertaking resulted in three literary works on Islam, Muslims and Islamic civilisation, namely, five “Letters” to God and the celestial court written after the fall of the city of Acre in 1291 with which the Levant Crusades were also brought to an end (translated by Rita George-Tvrtkovic); “Book of Travels” as a brief description of the lands and places Riccoldo visited, and also as a guide to future missionaries in the same territories (“so that friars who wish to take on the task of spreading the faith for Christ will know what they need to, as well as where and how they can achieve more) (translated by Rita George-Tvrtkovic); and “Against the Laws of the Saracens” which was most popular and was for centuries a main reference for Christian polemicists (translated by Edward Arthur Naumann).

The third book had many editions and its impact was massive. It was later titled “Confutation of the Koran”. It inspired generations of Christian antagonistic polemicists and Islamophobes, including such giants as Nicholas of Cusa (d. 1464) and Martin Luther (d. 1546) – the latter, admittedly, being more virulent than the former. Luther, in addition, translated the work into German in 1542. It was soon also translated into Greek and Spanish.

The nature of Muslim-Christian relations

Riccoldo was a perfect embodiment of the age during which he lived and worked. He was a “son” of the Crusades, at once as a tradition and a thought pattern. Just like the age and the generations which lived through it, Riccoldo’s personality too was a mixture of religious zeal, idealism and pride. Everything seemed to be excessive and exuberant.

Such was a time when interreligious – in particular Muslim-Christian – relations were increasingly becoming intimate, direct and reciprocal. That was a novel occurrence at the global stage. However, if many people’s intrinsic animosity, insincerity and superficiality are added to the fusion, then it is not surprising that there regularly existed perfect storms for misunderstandings and tensions. Wars signified the acmes of those goings-on, producing as well as cementing Islamophobic attitudes and acts.

While no party is to be absolved of all wrongdoing and so, of blame, it was the Christian polemicists, more often than not, who crossed the line. To most of them, Islam was a false religion, a form of heresy, a perfidy and a scourge; Prophet Muhammad was a devil, an impostor, the beast of Apocalypse and the destroyer of Christ and his kingdom; Muslims, accordingly, were evil, murderers, adulterers, plunderers, bloodthirsty barbarians and bigots. 

Thus, the devil and all forms of ultimate wickedness and immorality associated with it had to be done away with, once and for all and by hook or by crook. Anything was tolerable, for the noble ends easily justified the somewhat debatable means. The struggle was holy and participating in it a sign of authentic faith and piety. It was a Christian “jihad” (holy war), so to speak. 

Islam was no more than the latest challenge to the truth of Christianity, in a long series of historical challenges. And just like all other challenges, the challenge of Islam, too, will eventually be crushed and will be buried in the graveyard of historical “accidents”.

As an example, for Riccoldo the appearance of Muhammad and Islam denoted a third major challenge to Christendom, after the persecutions by the Romans and after the wave of perilous heretics. Muhammad as the challenger is described as the first born devil of Satan who rose in rebellion against the truth and the church of God. He was an immoral person and given to all deceitful devices. He composed the fraudulent and unjust Qur’an with the help of him who is the father of all lies. “This Mohammed has persecuted the church of God above all others who were or ever will be.” 

It was in this milieu that the Christian polemics consistently mutated into the elements of Islamophobic thought, and the proclivities of polemicists into the personalities of Islamophobes. In actual fact, such was a natural and expected course of development. The stage was set and everything was geared towards the circumstance. 

What people normally polemicised about under the guise of battling Islam’s and Muslims’ alleged fallacies, wickedness and cruelty, was the outcome of the rapidly growing Islamophobia and of Islamophobes’ vivid imagination of the religious other. Anything but the truth was desirable and sought. Honesty was so hard to come by and appreciate, and even harder to give.  

On the other hand, what Muslims did rarely transcended the level of pure apologetics and polemics. There was no Christianophobia, Judaismophobia or any other religion-o-phobia. Muslims believed that Christianity – and others – had veered off the right course and needed to be reminded, corrected and, if possible, returned to the fold of the truth. They were explicitly instructed to do so wisely, with beautiful preaching and to argue and debate (polemicise) in ways that are best and most gracious (al-Nahl, 125). There was a strong sense of the family of Abrahamic faiths that was articulated.

There was no room whatsoever for force for force’s sake and violence for violence’s sake. The Qur’an is emphatic about the veracity that there is no compulsion in religion (al-Baqarah, 256). It also proclaims: “And say: ‘The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve’” (al-Kahf, 29).

Moreover, Islam inherently never harboured any excess or injustice, not only against Christianity and Christians, but also against anybody else. The whole issue revolved exclusively around the questions of freedom, justice and the uninhibited conveyance of the final revealed message of God to mankind. Muslims generally operated under the burden of the heavenly mandate – with some unfortunate exceptions of course. They had to make the final revelation, which had been given to the Seal of prophets: Prophet Muhammad, unfailingly known and accessible to the world.

The Qur’an sums up this outlook beautifully: “And do not argue with the People of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) except in a way that is best, except for those who commit injustice among them, and say: ‘We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you. And our God and your God is one; and we are Muslims (in submission) to Him’” (al-‘Ankabut, 46).

Also: “Say, “O People of the Scripture, come to a word that is equitable between us and you – that we will not worship except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah” (Alu ‘Imran, 64).

Violating this ethics of preaching and arguing – yet dealing and interacting with others – is grossly inappropriate. It is a sin. People must be free, fairly treated and must be in positions to make only free choices, for which they and nobody else will subsequently be responsible. Islam recognises neither involuntary submission nor involuntary opposition. Physical (military) conquests are not the raison d’etre

But if some people in the end turn away, they should be told and then left alone: “Bear witness that we have submitted ourselves to the will of God (that we are Muslims)” (Alu ‘Imran, 64); “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion” (al-Kafirun, 6); “If they turn away (from the truth, let it be known that) God knows well the evil-doers” (Alu ‘Imran, 63).

Riccoldo as a missionary loaded with stereotypes

As an epitome of his circumstances, Riccoldo decided to separate himself from the negativities of this world by joining the arduous Dominican Order, and to become a witness of Christ and his preacher. He realised that it was not prudent for him to sit and be idle for so long and to not try some of the hardships relating to performing a pilgrimage and preaching, which the Lord himself had undergone.

After the pilgrimage, he set off to the East to attempt to “change” and improve the world by becoming a “fisher of men”. He was ready to dedicate all his life to preaching and dying “for him who had given me life through his own death”. And he did so with extraordinary passion and love, albeit with a rigid, yet often problematic, attitude and style. He seems to have believed that only he was right and everybody else wrong, and that only he knew and was guided, and everybody else was ignorant and misguided. 

Nevertheless, it is observable that Riccoldo knew little about the places he was about to visit. He knew even less about the people and their cultures and religions that he later closely interacted with. Yet, he travelled far and wide to expose the errors of, and to engage in fierce debates with, whatever he could come across. And later when in some measure he learned about new things – especially with regard to Islam and Muslims – by no means did he use the new experiences for the sake of truly educating himself. Rather, he used them for the sake of artificially bolstering his stereotypes and preconceptions.

That made Riccoldo a fierce preacher and a fanatical friar. He was opinionated and uncompromising, maybe even proud and ostentatious. He keeps repeating in his “Book of Travels” how he debated and defeated many religious factions, such as the heretical Nestorians, heretical Jacobites, heretical Maronites and Jews. Some of his feats he accomplished right inside his opponents’ places of worship. The opponents yet occasionally accepted him not as a man, but as an angel of God, attesting to his outstanding knowledge and disputation skills. 

It is noteworthy, nonetheless, that while Riccoldo claimed to have managed to outshine and defeat everybody in debates, no individuals or groups are reported to have followed him and his doctrines – except perhaps for some mere theological overtures by a few individuals.

One of Riccoldo’s supreme objectives pertained to Islam and Muslims (Saracens). He explains that his wish was to refute and destroy the treachery of Prophet Muhammad and his Islam. As a result, he intended to confront Muslims and their scriptural leaders nowhere else but inside their political, religious and intellectual capital: Baghdad, that is, in the “lion’s den”. He said: “It was necessary for us to converse with them a good deal, and they received us as angels of God in their schools and studia, in their monasteries and churches or synagogues, and in their homes. And we applied ourselves diligently to the study of their law (the Qur’an) and works.”

Riccoldo was fully aware of where he was and what he visited, yet whatever he witnessed of the spread and might of Islam and its civilisation he simply lumped in with the rest of “laws, rites, sects and heresies” which he merely “came upon in the eastern regions”.

It could be that owing to his aggressive and obdurate preaching style, he even landed himself in trouble. He was unlucky, in that while wandering around and preaching, and “proclaiming Christ”, he came upon certain “enemies of faith” who “by means of threats and beatings wanted to force me to preach Mahomet and his perfidious law. With your (God’s) help I refused, and after beatings which love bore easily, they took from me the holy habit of my Order, and I, stripped and confused, took up the habit of a camel-driver and the reins of a camel.” “The Saracens could make me a camel-driver, but not a Saracen.”

These must have been the wrong people whom Riccoldo had confronted at the wrong time and at the wrong place. The source of the predicament furthermore must have been the friar’s antagonistic and prejudiced evangelisation style. The reasons are as follows.

Iraq was sufficiently international, multi-religious and multi-cultural to tolerate – and, should the need arise, absorb – a group of new Christians. This was especially the case with regard to the capital city of Baghdad, a metropolis about which Riccoldo himself wrote: “There are many thousands of Christians and Jews here, and it is estimated that there are more than two hundred thousand Saracens; everyone lives under the rule of the Tartars. Here the Saracens have their largest schools and great masters. Here are many Saracen religious orders. Here many diverse Islamic sects can be found together. And here are the great monasteries of the Saracens which are called megerede, which means ‘contemplatives’.”

Riccoldo also stated – as mentioned earlier – that Muslims received him and his companions as though they were “angels of God”. Such happened everywhere they went, including the homes of Muslims. Besides, he at the same time is said to have been allowed to build his own church, “with the interdiction to preach in public”.

Riccoldo consequently titled one of the sections in his “Book of Travels” as “On their (Muslims’) friendliness to foreigners”, which applied to non-Muslims as well. In the section he wrote: “Their friendliness and urbanity towards foreigners is such that we were received as angels (Hebrews 13. 2) when we wished to enter the homes of the noble and the learned. For they received us with such gladness that it often seemed to us that we had truly found hosts of our own Order – hosts who welcomed us as freely as brothers into their own homes. Frequently, out of a certain urbanity and intimacy, they asked us to say something in praise of God or Christ. And whenever they said the name of Christ in our presence, they never did so without adding the appropriate acclamation, for example, ‘Christ be praised’ or something like that.”

Hence, for Riccoldo to be subjected to forced labour, exclusively due to him being a Christian and due to his preaching of the Gospel, was an anomaly under some anomalous conditions. Baghdad at the time was the most tolerant place in the world, and its people the most tolerant and open-minded lot. What happened to Riccoldo was an exception that did not invalidate the rule. 

Examples of stereotypes

Because of this stereotypical disposition of his, Riccoldo never tired of generalising things and arriving at instantaneous, sweeping and outright wrong conclusions. For example, he said about the Turkmens, as soon as he mentioned them for the first time, that they were “a nearly bestial (beast-like, savage and barbaric) people who are Saracens and ordinarily live under the earth like moles. They emerge from their burrows like mice and immediately fall into regiment.”

About the Tartars, moreover, he said that they were a horrible and monstrous tribe. Many of them very much resembled apes, especially the old men. They were descendants of Gog and Magog.

Riccoldo knew that the mighty Tartars had conquered many Islamic lands as pagans. However, almost as soon as they had done so, they became conquered themselves. They were the conquerors of Muslims and Muslim territories, but became conquered by the sheer power and purity of Islam. 

This unprecedented circumstance was very hard for Riccoldo to swallow and to come to terms with. The world of Christianity (“the abode of the truth”) was shrinking by the day, whereas the opposite was happening to the world of Islam (“the abode of falsehood and evil”). He was confused and lost. He thus complained to God in one of his five “Letters”: “And it is to such a beast (Prophet Muhammad and Muslims) that you have given so much power against the Christians for almost 700 years!…To Mahomet, the greatest criminal, you have given an earthly kingdom – nay, you have given him and his people rule over the whole world!…Very soon not a single Christian will remain in the world… If it pleases you that Mahomet should rule, tell us so that we may venerate him (as well).”

In order to give himself – and others – some ostensible comfort, Riccoldo explained away such a miracle by naively elaborating: “They (the Tartars) killed innumerable Saracens, especially their warriors, and sold their women and children into slavery. But hearing that the Saracens claimed to be the people of God and that they alone are saved through the law of the Qur’an and the prayers of Mahomet, the Tartars examined their law. When they found that it was exceedingly lax and contained nothing difficult either in belief or works, they accepted their law and became Saracens, especially since the Tartars had neither the law nor the prophets. Thus most of the Tartars became Saracens in this way. For the Saracens acquired and gave the greatest gifts to them so that they would convert. The Tartars converted and defended the Saracens and persecuted Christians. But many Tartars loved the Christians and would have become Christians, except the Christians did not want to give them gifts as the Saracens had, and their law seemed rather difficult.”

Riccoldo wrote this in his “Book of Travels”. But later in his book “Against the Laws of the Saracens” he, in addition, wrote – contradicting himself thereby – that the Qur’an was not as easy a compendium of laws as it seemed at a first glance. It was dangerous because neglecting it incurred severe penalties. It likewise contained many works that were difficult to implement, as a result of which, primarily, a great many Muslims did not – and could not – observe them.

If that was the situation, one wonders how the Tartars were attracted to Islam on account of its laws being “exceedingly lax” and containing “nothing difficult either in belief or works” – as contended by Riccoldo – when in reality that was not the case.  Having experienced Islamic laws, and having discovered the actual truth following the conversion, how come the Tartars did not revert to their old ways?

This contradiction is further compounded by the verity that Riccoldo dedicated a sizeable segment of his “Book of Travels” just to highlight how dedicated Muslims were in their religious rituals and services, and how virtuous they were. The segment is called “The Saracen works of perfection”. He observed: “we were stupefied to discover how – with a law of such perfidy – works of great perfection could be found.”

By way of illustration, in his “Against the Laws of the Saracens”, Riccoldo remarked that it is obvious that Muslims for various reasons do not observe the Qur’an and many of its commandments. He “found out” that many drink wine, they get inebriated with weed, they eat illicit things, they do not fast or pray, nor do they give what they can (in charity), and “many other things which one knows better who tries to converse with them.”

Here Riccoldo mentioned that people do not pray, but later – in opposition – commented as follows: “What can I say about their prayer? For such is their solicitude in and devotion to prayer that I was stupefied when, through experience, I saw it and witnessed it. For I travelled three months and a half without interruption with Saracen camel-drivers in the deserts of Arabia and Persia, and there was never any hardship or crisis which prevented the Arab camel-drivers from praying at fixed hours day and night, especially in the morning and evening. For they display such devotion in prayer that they completely forsake all else. The faces of some suddenly drain of all colour and seem enraptured, some swoon, while others dance, change their voice, or shake their heads. Some seem to be enraptured, while others are possessed by demons.”

Anyhow, Riccoldo viewed and judged Islam and its civilisation only through the prism of his Christian faith, values and practices. He cast everything in his preconceived theological and cultural moulds. If however something did not fit the moulds, he was quick to create one, so that no question remained unanswered and no ambiguity unexplained. Afterwards, it was easy to find “adequate” both rational and textual pseudo- and semi-evidence for the purpose of justifying the necessary procedures. 

In the above case, Riccoldo appears to have seriously mishandled the subtle relationship between faith, works and moral code in Islam against the backdrop of the existing “moulds”. Such a snag manifested itself whenever he in a variety of contexts tried to draw parallels between the Islamic and Christian salvation, together with behavioural, paradigms.

And as soon as one starts feeling that everything has been said, Riccoldo, perhaps most startlingly, declares that Islam contains nothing noteworthy about virtues, humility, or patience, or peace, or abstinence, or love of God or neighbour, and of the ultimate end. Not only so, but he charges Prophet Muhammad with the corruption of all morals and virtues in the Qur’an, and with the implantation of all sorts of vice within its compass. 

Thus, the Muslim religious trajectory, in the eyes of Riccoldo, shifts from the outrageous to the sublime, and then to the ridiculous. It stands to reason that his well-known spiritual crises and emotional roller-coasters – which he had experienced on his journeys – were at times too much to bear. His intellectual soundness and judgmental prowess, insofar as Islam and Muslims were concerned, were as a consequence affected.

Finally, about the Kurds, Riccoldo wrote in a doctrinaire fashion: “(They were) a fierce, monstrous tribe whose wickedness and savagery exceed that of all the other barbarous nations we found. They live in the mountains and steep locations like wild goats. It is for this reason that the Tartars, who have subjugated all the other eastern nations, have been unable to conquer the Kurds…Unless a Kurd commits a great evil – treason, pillage, or murder – he has no honour with them, and he does not dare to wear anything on his head nor can he find a wife. But if he accomplishes some remarkably evil deed, they give him a wife and power according to the magnitude of that evil; small if a small evil, and great if a great evil. They are Saracens and have accepted the Qur’an. Many of them hate Christians, especially the Franks, and above all the members of religious orders, whom they have killed relentlessly.”

The Kurds were firstly Christians and then, like in the case of the Tartars, they “became Saracens due to the laxity of their law”. “Among them, three sins greatly flourish: homicide, piracy, and treason. A person cannot rely on their promise or oath. The aforementioned Kurds have many other bestial traits – too many to report.”

Islam, therefore, as a religion of evil and aggression could attract only like-minded ones. It fashioned a coalition of barbarians, sinners and evildoers.

Elements of Riccoldo’s Islamophobia 

Riccoldo was a medieval Islamophobe par excellence. Some of his Islamophobia components were budding, while others were in an advanced stage.

To begin with, he was so prejudiced against and averse to everything Islamic that he never complemented any positivity he witnessed in Muslim lands. He was ever ready to downplay, dismiss, twist and misconstrue basically everything he saw, heard or experienced. While untoward things he did not shy away from exaggerating, amplifying and generalising. 

For instance – as mentioned earlier – he was clearly impressed (stupefied) by Muslims’ “works of perfection”, specifically with regard to Muslims’ dedication to knowledge and the ethics of doing so, prayer, almsgiving, reverence for the name of God, dignified behaviour, friendliness to foreigners, concord and mutual love – so much so that Muslims were even surpassing Christians in certain aspects of those works.

However, no sooner had he brought up those, than Riccoldo hastened to overshadow the matter by pointing out that Muslims also believed that “their law will endure as long as their strength and victory endure by the sword. For theirs is a law of violence.” He then hit the nail on the head: “We have narrated the above not so much to praise the Saracens as to shame certain Christians who are unwilling to do for the law of life what the damned are willing to do for the law of death.” 

As if he cried to his coreligionists: “‘Blush with shame, O Christians!’ You are not willing to do for your truth and benevolence what Muslims were doing for their falsehood and aggression.”

The message of Riccoldo – like of Martin Luther two centuries later – was that Islam is about base and absurd things concealed under a beautiful, effective and robust show of ceremonies, good works and false miracles. It is about a false glitter and deceptive splendour, which is imposed and guarded by force (the sword). Everything is enforced and artificial, and the sword rules supreme. Christianity, on the other hand, is more sublime than that. It is about the substance, compassion and love of the truth. It is about pure grace and faith in Christ the Saviour.

Riccoldo – again like Luther – feared that the Christians might be deceived by the false glitter of the “works of perfection” of Muslims. They needed to enhance their authentic Christian faith in order to see through the imposed deceptions and to remain faithful to their own religious sacraments and values. Salvation was inwards- instead of outwards-oriented. 

Echoing this sentiment, Luther likewise wrote: “We see that the religion of the Turks or Muhammad is far more splendid in ceremonies – and, I might almost say, in customs – than ours, even including that of the religious or all the clerics. The modesty and simplicity of their food, clothing, dwellings, and everything else, as well as the fasts, prayers, and common gatherings of the people are nowhere seen among us…This is the reason why many persons so easily depart from faith in Christ for Muhammadanism and adhere to it so tenaciously. I sincerely believe that no papist, monk, cleric, or their equal in faith would be able to remain in their faith if they should spend three days among the Turks.”

Riccoldo concluded the subject by disclosing: “Christians have the law of God and understanding of it, but without the perfection of works; Jews truly have the law of God but without understanding or works; and Saracens truly seem to have certain good works, but without the complete law of God or understanding of it.”

Moreover, Riccoldo was a hawk and warmonger. After the fall of the city (Kingdom) of Acre in 1291, he lobbied for a new crusade to recapture the Holy Land. 

Towards that end was his praise of the King of Aragonia and Sicily for retaking Betica, a province in southern Spain, from Muslims. He said that he was the only Christian king who at that time was able to inflict calamities on Muslims. Then, upon hearing that the King was bent on proceeding to the (Muslim) Africa for the same purpose, Riccoldo expressed delight and concurrence with the plan. He yet elaborated to the King why that military expedition will be easier, but much more impactful, than the one in Betica.

After Africa, Riccoldo proposed that a military expedition to the Holy Land be undertaken and revenge exacted. He wrote to the same King – as part of the introduction to his “Against the Laws of the Saracens”: “Follow through with the war that has begun and take all your men over to Africa, which you will easily be able to bring under the yoke.  Indeed, once that has been conquered and brought back under the power of Christendom, then you will easily regain Jerusalem, a land so great, so fertile, so holy, yet which is obedient at this time to the Sultan of Baghdad.”

Riccoldo next gave the King some information, as well as counsels, with regard to the plausibility of recapturing the Holy Land. He told him that there was much at stake and that the most triumphant victory was awaiting in Jerusalem, the city where “our Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ announced the Gospel and put in place for us the New Testament.”

Indeed, the Holy Land needed to be cleansed of the defilements and impurities of Islam and its followers: “This city you will free from the frightful and excessive religion of the Mohammedans.  Once you have carefully read this confutation of Brother Riccoldo (the book which he was prefacing thus) then you will learn for the first time how empty this religion is, how worthless, how lacking in substance; and how it has nothing of importance to say for our present day.”

What is more, in his “Letters” Riccoldo beseeches Almighty God and the members of the celestial court to intervene and smite the evil and repressive Muslims for their infidelity, wickedness and horrifying crimes associated with the fall of Acre and the rest of Christian places. His tone is a mixture of grief and thirst for vengeance. He and other Christians had been debilitated and rendered desperate down on earth, so on his personal behalf and on behalf of all victims he looked to Heaven for help and intervention. 

Riccoldo’s language is such that many wonder how “Christian” the pleas were, whether he overstepped the bounds of the acceptable and the pious, how much his emotions got the better of him, and whether he was in the right frame of mind. He described himself as “afflicted, abandoned, and alone in a far-off land, with a feeble body, sorrowful heart, and almost completely confused mind.” At any rate, as an exemplary follower of Christ, it was not ideal for him to question God and His running of the world, to question salvation history, and to ask for retaliation and for more violence and destruction. He as a total servant and ambassador of Christ should have displayed more rationality, wisdom and compassion, irrespective of the conditions.

Riccoldo said in this connection that the law – nay the perfidy – of the Saracens should be quickly put an end to, and with it the case of the Saracens be completely demolished into oblivion. He also said: why don’t you (God) make your power known among the nations?; in one night you (God) sent your angel, who killed 185,000 from among the Assyrian camp, O Lord, why therefore do you now sleep, do you not care that we are perishing?; it is not sufficient that you (God) made your power known in the past, make it known now, arise, O Lord, save us, do it, and do not spurn us in the end!; why hasn’t (God) raised up someone stronger than (Muhammad) who will defeat him, destroy his arms, and distribute the spoils?; dare I say that you (God) have changed into a cruel God because now you are destroying many of the righteous along with a few of the wicked, you who were in the habit of sparing many of the wicked for a few of the righteous; attend quickly (the Blessed Virgin Mary) to our miseries and strive quickly to put an end to the law and perfidy of Muhammad, and to the power of the Saracens; (entire celestial curia) destroy quickly the tyranny of Muhammad, how long will he rule over you, this lewd pervert – nay, this totally carnal, poisonous man, how long will this contagious leper infect the world?

At last – and possibly most astonishingly – Riccoldo’s discourses abound with lies, fabrications, errors, exaggerations and insults that are mind-boggling. They can easily in any time and place generate forms and degrees of the baseless fear, hatred of, intolerance and bigotry against Islam, Muslims and Islamic civilisation. Such is his vocabulary – once more – that one cannot stop wondering how “Christian”, pious and morally justifiable his statements were. Not in the slightest would Christ be happy with how the one who had chosen to be his witness and preacher described and targeted his “enemies”.

Riccoldo said – out of the myriads of his absurdities: Saracens were a perfidious race; the Qur’an was deceitful and replete with blasphemies; Muhammad was a heretic, enemy of Christ and a deceitful damned tyrant who became a prophet through robbery and tyranny; Muhammad was a robber, a murderer, a sinful man, the greatest criminal, a liar who blasphemes God in his Qur’an; Muhammad was a cruel beast who with his followers aimed to conquer the world, destroy altars and churches, kill God’s saints and force them under torture to deny the faith; Muslims were guilty of converting with great contempt many churches into mosques and stables, of killing many Christians, excellent men and preachers of the faith; as the most ferocious beast, Muhammad was devouring the holy men of Christianity, and was a wicked and lewd blasphemer against God; Muslim tyrants were guilty of dividing among themselves the holy nuns consecrated to God, the faithful virgin spouses vowed to God alone, so that they may bear the children of Saracens; the greatest liar Muhammad said that he was sent by God with the aid of arms to bear many children so that the population of Saracens would increase; Muslims converted churches into Qur’anic schools in order to blaspheme Christ and the Evangelist; the Qur’an is foolish and seductive, and Muhammad was an obscene and most carnal blasphemer; Muhammad was a lewd pervert, a totally carnal and poisonous man, and a contagious leper who infected the world; the virgins and holy nuns have been led throughout the world and have been impregnated by the Saracens, and from them have given birth to Saracen tyrants and provincial governors who surpass the other Saracens in their hostility towards the Christians; Muhammad was one of the greatest imitators of the devil and a famous precursor of the antichrist who arose and corrupted morals and virtues in his Qur’an and who has implanted vices in order to quietly extinguish the Christian faith; Muhammad has destroyed Christian cities and churches, and now it has been seven hundred years since he has prevailed solely by the force of his arms; Muhammad as a seducer and a man inclined to sexual desire permits fornication and sodomy, yet not only does he permit this, but it seems that he has commanded men to fornicate with numerous women, so that many Saracens will be born; “Mahomet uses such a tasteless and impudent word in his Qur’an that everyone clearly understands him to be saying something obscene and entirely carnal”; in fact Muhammad “has expressly allowed sodomy for both men and women, as I have read in the Qur’an…He has said this clearly and with wording so shameless that out of modesty I can neither say nor write it, but I will entrust it to the holy angels who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah”; “I believe that there has never been any book in the world which blasphemes God and the celestial court as much as the Qur’an”; Muhammad was a bestial and diabolical man whose movement and power are based on violence; Muhammad spread his religion and rule by the sword, and the sword was his only “miracle” and “tool”; whoever opposed Muhammad or did not believe in him and did not submit to his law should be killed; not only is it said in one chapter of the Qur’an, but throughout the whole of it, like some kind of universal command: ‘Kill!  Kill!’; Muhammad and Muslims torture and kill Christians only because they are unwilling to deny their faith; Muhammad permitted a great number of wives in marriage and the seduction of slave-girls and however many one can take away while plundering in war, even taking the wives of others without concern; there is almost an infinite number of lies in the Qur’an and it pleases demons; Muhammad was corrupt and led a detestable life of extravagance and fraud.

How knowledgeable about Islam was Riccoldo?

The medieval Christian scholarship on Islam was one-dimensional and stationary. It was standardised, so to speak. From the twelfth century onwards, for example, most Christian theologians and polemicists, while differing somewhat in emphases, dealt with similar topics, creating “a fairly uniform medieval view” of Islam and Muslims. This applied to matters relating to overall styles, methods, contents and conclusions. Criticisms and condemnations were similarly standardised too (Rita George-Tvrtkovic).

That was as such by reason of the existence of only a few sources upon which essentially everybody depended. Even Luther in the early 16th century lamented the lack of “appropriate” sources on Islam. While Riccoldo initially had no choice but to follow the trend, he nevertheless was set to change – and bolster – the convention. He had done and had experienced what no other missionary until then – and rarely ever afterwards – could have claimed to have under his belt. He spent about twelve years on the ground, learned Arabic, learned Islam from its original sources with the aid of Muslim teachers and in all sorts of Muslim institutions of learning, including private homes. Certainly, his resume was astonishing.

Riccoldo was fully aware of his remarkable qualities and how critical they were. He was a great asset to Christendom. Therefore, in his works he keeps calling attention to his merits, trying to be more convincing and to add credibility to whatever he said. As if he foresaw a need to do so, for he witnessed, heard, read and knew what nobody else did. He needed people to believe him and follow what he said. His actions, as a result, sometimes bordered on sheer pride and bragging.

He for instance reiterates that he would not have been able to believe some things if he had not read them with his own eyes, and that he himself had read all things in Arabic. He also points up that he often preached the Catholic faith in Arabic before multitudes of people, and that some things would not be denied, nor disguised, if people only knew Arabic. He once overstated his case so much that he said that he had most diligently searched the entire East for the verification of a Qur’anic “blunder”.

At one point Riccoldo yet asked Christ to read the Qur’an for himself (“But I beg you, read what he (Muhammad) says about you, your mother, and your apostles…Read, read what Mahomet says!”); he in addition suggested to Christ that he should read the Qur’an to him (“I ask, therefore, that you not disdain to hear a little of what I recount to you”); and finally, and most peculiarly, he admitted that he sometimes brought the Qur’an into his church and placed it right in front of the images of Christ and Mary, so that they too could read it (“I have placed the book open on your altar before your image and that of your most holy mother”).

However, despite everything, Riccoldo seemed not to be as knowledgeable about Islam and Islamic civilisation as he claimed and wanted people to believe. He definitely knew very little when he first came to the East, but his partly ignorant and fully bigoted views significantly neither changed nor improved throughout the course of his stay among Muslims. What he was saying at the beginning of his travels and immediately after the fall of Acre, is identical to what he later wrote in his most authoritative work “Against the Laws of the Saracens”. The latter but expanded and enriched the scope of the former, with the spirit and rationale remaining the same.

Riccoldo came to Muslim lands not to learn, but to preach and “lecture”; not to discover and build, but to nullify and destroy; not to merely interact and communicate, but to argue and dispute; and not to form views and perceptions, but to reinforce and impose them. He came trained and fully prepared to do all that. His personality and character indeed typified all the downsides of the radical as well as highly antagonistic medieval Christian polemics and apologetics. 

He conceitedly held that neither Islam as a religion, nor Muhammad as a spiritual and worldly leader could offer him – and by extension the whole Christendom – anything meaningful and valuable. They denoted a historical as well as religious miscarriage and waste. No wonder that Muhammad is often compared by Riccoldo to the famous heretics of the Christian heritage, and his views to theirs. Examples of those heretics are: Arius (d. 336), Eunomius (d. 393), Carpocrates (d. 138), Cerdonius (2nd century), Manichaeists (3rd century), Donatists (4th century), Macedonius (d. after 360), Cerinthus (d. 100) and Nicolaitans (some of earliest heretics). 

The message presented thereby is that just as all those heretics and their false ideologies had been extinguished, Muhammad, as simply another impostor and heretic, and his false ideology will correspondingly as well be obliterated. Their fate will also be his; and what an honour it would be to partake in the holy enterprise and bring down the “harbinger of the antichrist”

Riccoldo did not learn, but abused knowledge and all the opportunities accorded to him. Most of what he said and did in the name of learning stood for a smokescreen behind which the real things unfolded and the real side of Riccoldo performed. His sole goal was to justify anyhow his bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and to enrich them as much as possible. To do so, he resorted to superficialities, manipulations and outright forgeries. A degree of two-facedness should not be completely ruled out either. 

Riccoldo ignored the views of the majority of Muslim scholars and closed his eyes to the mainstream Islam, putting his faith, instead, in some eccentric, inferior and repudiated views and interpretations. He was busy disputing, arguing, proselytising and orating to be able to generate the needed shrewdness and farsightedness. 

He likewise took advantage of the fact that some things in the Qur’an are not specific nor entirely clear for many or some people, capitalising on the prospect without taking into consideration the things that are specific and entirely clear and which constitute the foundation of the Qur’an and of Islam as a whole. He adopted the standard method of all spiritual nonconformists, namely, subjecting what is clear to that which is unclear so as to blur it, in preference to doing the opposite, which is subjecting what is unclear to that which is clear so as to illuminate it.

Furthermore, it is a fundamental and, at the same time, basic segment of the Islamic wisdom – and Riccoldo should have known that – that interpretations of the Qur’an and Islam in general are not the Qur’an and Islam themselves; that the views of jurists and other scholars are merely their views and understandings, often issuing from their own independent reasoning, rather than absolute precepts and traditions; that questionable, weak and rejected (made-up) statements of Prophet Muhammad (hadith) ought to be treated exactly in accordance with their grades; that Muslims’ behavioural models are not always perfect indexes of the Islamic faith; that everything about Islam is democratic, open, known and transparent; that Islam as a way of life is a delicate synthesis, yet balance, between faith and works, totally contingent on God’s grace and clemency; that a very basic knowledge of Arabic – and the rest of Muslim studies – is not sufficient for properly studying and understanding the Qur’an, because so vast and profound are the meanings, messages, lessons and signs of the Qur’an that such, in particular when coupled with dishonest intentions and attitudes, is bound to mislead and even ruin a person. 

It goes without saying that if someone pays no heed to all these guidelines, one can construct and say anything he wants about Islam and Muslims. There is nothing that can prevent him from doing so. Such a one disregarded all the standards of judiciousness and integrity at the levels of intent, procedures and means, so how anything can stop him from committing the same indiscretion at the level of deductions as well. Without a doubt, nothing blinds like a fusion of ignorance, subjectivity, bias, pride and hate.

That is exactly what befell Riccoldo. He was entangled in a vicious circle from which, even if he at some stage of his progression wanted, was nigh on impossible to set himself free. His spiritual and emotional crises – with reference to the notions of Muslims’ works of perfection and questioning salvation history, as mentioned before – were able to shake him and his convictions to the very foundations, but failed to break the curse of the “circle”. In every instance he was capable of coming back stronger and more eager.

Thus, when all is said and done, Riccoldo’s knowledge about Islam was fake and exaggerated, and was acquired for all the wrong reasons. Otherwise, there cannot be any averagely – never mind proficiently – knowledgeable person who would honourably ever subscribe to, teach, or endorse any of the following “Islamic views”, most of which have allegedly been extracted directly from the Qur’anic text and all of which are Riccoldo’s official views on Islam. 

He accepted as true and publicised that Islam permits adultery, fornication and sodomy for both men and women (“and even though they (scholars of Islam) strive out of shame to disguise this with various explanations, Mahomet stated it so clearly and with words so tasteless and shameful that they cannot deny it or disguise it among those who know the Arabic language”); all sinners will obtain pardon from God, provided that they do not say that God has a son; Virgin Mary was the ancient Mary who lived at the time of Moses, and Moses and Aaron were her biological brothers; the Qur’an is full of corrupted virtues and morals, and is all about wickedness and sin; Muhammad was instructed to be violent and to kill whoever refuses to follow him; in Islam it is all about killing and the sword; God is alleged to have said to Muhammad in the Qur’an: “I will not permit you to perform miracles, because I know that they will not believe in you, but I will give you the sword so that through violence you will compel them to believe”; Muhammad led a detestable life of extravagance, adultery, and robbery until the end; Muhammad blasphemes holy prophets in the Qur’an; the Qur’an was not revealed by God, but was written by Muhammad, and is full of lies, blasphemies and foolishness; much of the Qur’an was dictated to Muhammad by his two Jewish and one Christian teacher; God prays for Muhammad and Muslims, so Riccoldo asked God at the peak of his spiritual crisis: “But whom do you address, O God, when you pray for them? Whom do you address? Do you simply address yourself, do you address angels, do you address demons?”; of an almost infinite number of lies in the Qur’an Riccoldo “discovered” that ultimately the following one was true, namely, that the Qur’an pleases demons and they delight in it, just as if it were a decree coming from their mouths, “for I believe all the more that they themselves (demons), more than men, are the authors of the Qur’an, by which so many people are deceived and by which so many souls are led into eternal damnation without respite”; Muslims believe that nothing is necessary for salvation except to say: ‘there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God’, for Muslims commonly believe that if a Muslim says this phrase alone, he will be saved, even if he should commit all the sins in the world; many things are permitted and commanded in Islam because in the next life there is no punishment for transgressions; the Qur’an (law) is obscure and confused, so confused that it truly seems as if the god who gave it to Muslims is foolish; the Qur’an is exceedingly mendacious and full of inconsistencies; “besides the Qur’an, the Saracens have another book which Mahomet gave them, in which there are such lies and such incredible things that to speak about them would be too tedious and too unbelievable”; the law of the Qur’an is irrational and diabolical, and has misled so vast a portion of the human race; God commanded angels to worship Adam, “but how can God forget his own precepts which he has repeated so often, saying: ‘you shall worship the Lord your God and serve him alone’?”; what Muslims say about the paradise they await is as ridiculous as if saying something about a paradise of horses, mules and asses.

It is truly amazing that these and other self-evident fallacies endured for centuries and that the truth is yet to completely take off. Where are the impacts and benefits of enlightenment, globalisation, information age, and the age of the internet? By way of example, in 2017, there was an international conference in Stockholm, Sweden, organised by Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, which was titled “Riccoldo da Monte di Croce: Missionary to the Middle East and Expert on Islam”. 

Anyway, if it is still held in the 21st century and inside highly respectable circles that Riccoldo was an “expert” on Islam, one then should brace himself and conclude two things: firstly, how serious the impediments to overcoming the bane of Islamophobia nowadays are; and secondly, that the causes which created and through ages sustained the Riccoldo exemplar are still around – mutated – and are ever capable of producing effects. The latter is a real cause for concern.***

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