The Significance of the Non-Muslim Evidence for Qur’anic Studies (Part 3)

Ibn Warraq

Below, the author concludes an examination of significant figures in the medieval West’s appraisal of Islam. Parts 1 and 2 appeared in the previous two issues.—Eds.

Riccoldo Da Monte Croce (1243–1320)

Riccoldo was born in 1243 in Florence. He joined the Dominican Order at the age of twenty-four and traveled in the Middle East as a missionary, living for a while in Baghdad, where he learned Arabic and witnessed the sale of Christian slaves after the Fall of Acre in 1291. On his return to Italy toward the end of the thirteenth century, he settled back into the Dominican convent of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. There he began his great work, the Contra legem Saracenorum, a comprehensive refutation of Islam focused on the Qur’an and its contents. (Originally written in Latin in the early fourteenth century, it was not published until 1500, later than a Greek translation that appeared in the mid-fourteenth century.) Riccoldo died at Santa Maria Novello in 1320. Contra legem Saracenorum draws heavily on the Contrarietas alpholica, an anonymous work of the eleventh or twelfth century that was possibly written by a Muslim convert to Christianity and was translated into Latin by Mark of Toledo.

Riccoldo recounts the story of the different recensions of the Qur’an and all the ensuing quarrels among Muslims. He states that there was no Qur’an at the death of Muhammad, and argues that the Qur’an was a most haphazard collection of very human documents collected after the Prophet’s death. Riccoldo found the Qur’an itself irrational, repetitive, and obscene. Like Mark of Toledo, Riccoldo considered it extremely disorderly and illogical, shifting as it did from one historical period to another and from one argument to another, and full of contradictions.

Martin Luther translated Riccoldo’s book into German in 1542. He had read it long before, but thought Riccoldo was exaggerating—until Luther later read the Qur’an in Latin and realized that Riccoldo had been speaking the truth.

Juan De Segovia (c.1393–1458)

Juan de Segovia began life as a professor at Salamanca, attended the Council of Basel in 1433—he later wrote its history—and then ended his days in retirement in a small monastery in Savoy. He “took up Quran study in a nearly obsessive way after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.” His translation of the Qur’an is now lost, but we have his preface to it. Though profoundly hostile to Islam, de Segovia was nonetheless

passionately committed to gaining a thorough and correct understanding of the Quran—determined to understand not only what it says, but how it is put together, how the language in which it was written worked, and how Muslims themselves understood what it means . . . , authorities must be consulted . . . ; the Arabic language itself must be embraced, its thoroughly non-Latin structures and its abounding and intricate vocabulary mastered; the conventions of Quranic narration must be considered, the practices of Arabic, and specifically Quranic, orthography thought through.

De Segovia found one Muslim scholar called Ica, also of Segovia, to translate the Qur’an into Castilian; de Segovia rendered the Castilian version into Latin. He also learned Arabic from Ica and took the trouble to look at the manuscripts of the Qur’an in Arabic, discovering that “one Quran manuscript that he possessed . . . contained far more vowel marks for case endings than did another that he had recently acquired.” De Segovia suspected that the lack of proper vowel marks was one of the reasons Muslims did not understand their religion. His version of the Qur’an must have been, in the end, literal in the extreme since he wanted to make the Latin text conform to the Arabic way of speaking. “What began as a tool for converting the worst of heretics became in the end, therefore, a book of supremely philological character, a volume that privileged lexical and grammatical inquiry and brought the reader’s attention ever back to the Arabic text in all its Arab-Muslim particularity.” He also recognized the Christian elements in the Qur’an, something that Nicholas of Cusa himself acknowledged a little later.

Nicholas Of Cusa (c. 1401–1464)

Nicholas was born at Cues, present-day Bernkastel on the Moselle, probably in 1401. He was educated at the universities of Heidelberg, Padua, Bologna, and Cologne. He studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and, later, Arabic. He began his public life in 1431 at the Council of Basel, where he became the passionate advocate for the religious and political unity of Christendom. He was created a cardinal by Nicholas V in 1448.

Nicholas’s Cribratio Al Qur’ani (1460) was written after his visit to Constantinople in hopes of converting Muslims there. Nicholas scrutinized the Qur’an, using Robert of Ketton’s Latin translation. He was also much influenced by al-Kindi’s Risala and Riccoldo da Monte Croce’s Contra legem Saracenorum. However, Nicholas did manage some acute and original analysis, such as his observation that the Christian elements in the Qur’an must have come from Christian apocryphal literature:

Now, at the time that Muhammad began, viz in 624 a.d., during the reign of Emperor Heraclius, there had long since arisen, and [been] condemned by the synods, many heresies vis-á-vis an understanding of the Gospel and of the Old Testament. Therefore, it is likely that there flocked to Muhammad numerous [men] who possessed the purity-of-understanding of the aforesaid writings [in such way that it was] commingled with the novelty of less true opinions. These men mingled the writings of the Testament with stories from the Talmud and mingled the clarity of the Gospel with apocryphal books. And they recounted [these writings] to Muhammad as they thought right.

Here, Nicholas seems perfectly aware of the sectarian milieu out of which the Qur’an must have come, not to mention both the Judaic and Christian elements present in the Muslim scripture. Scholars have been debating ever since which elements predominate, the Christian or Jewish. Interestingly enough, Nicholas seems to suggest that it is Nestorian Christianity that is the predominant influence as far as the Gospels and Christ are concerned. It should be perhaps mentioned here that for Luxenberg it is Eastern (Nestorian) Syriac that is the predominant influence on the language of the Qur’an.

Qur’anic Criticism in Medieval Europe, 1140–1540

European attitudes toward Islam and the Qur’an in particular in the period between 1140–1540 were far more complex, ambiguous, and subtle than what certain recent scholars such as Norman Daniel have argued. Thomas E. Burman clearly shows Latin Christendom’s admiration for the Arab-Islamic world, including the Arabic language. Though sometimes scandalized by it, Christians were also intrigued by the Qur’an. They wrestled intellectually with Arabic syntax and usage, often turning to Arab Qur’an commentaries to make sense of an opaque text. Burman has drawn attention to a number of manuscripts of Latin translations of the Qur’an that have extensive interlinear or marginal philological notes, the anonymous authors showing a profound knowledge of Qur’anic exegetical tradition.


In his classic Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages, R.W. Southern shows that Europeans displayed many different attitudes between the seventh and fifteenth centuries, lumped together as the “Medieval” period. For instance, by the middle of the twelfth century, writes Southern, “ra
tional views of Islam were beginning to be fairly widespread, since we can find them casually and independently expressed by authors in England, France, Germany, and Spain. . . . A habit of independent inquiry became established . . . and showed itself in these traces of candid appraisal of Islam.” Then again, we have the example of Uthred of Boldon who, in the 1360s, held that “at the moment of death all human beings, whether Christian or Moslem, or of whatever faith, enjoyed the direct vision of God and received their everlasting judgement in the light of their response to this experience.” As Southern adds,

Here was a man who belonged to the most conservative of the religious orders, a doctor of divinity whose ways of thought were orthodox, laborious, and unoriginal, putting forward a view which admitted unbelievers outside Christendom to privileges hitherto, in traditional Christian thought, exclusively reserved for Christian believers. The proposition was condemned and withdrawn, but it was significant. The growing concern about the eternal fate of unbelievers—I do not mean simply a desire to convert them, but a desire to find some means, if it were possible, of including them in the scheme of salvation—is one of the most attractive features of the period.

The latter generous impulse—Christian Universalism—was a tendency in Western culture that Southern argues led to “a blurring of the clear-cut line between the West and its neighbours.” Where is the putatively eternal conflict between East and West, Us and Them, so dear to the followers of Edward Said?

Southern concludes his work with a question about the West’s ability to provide a final, satisfying explanation of Islam:

Was there any success?. . . Was there any progress? I must express my conviction that there was. Even if the solution of the problem remained obstinately hidden from sight, the statement of the problem became more complex, more rational, and more related to experience in each of the three stages of controversy which we have examined. The scholars who labored at the problem of Islam in the Middle Ages failed to find the solution they sought and desired; but they developed habits of mind and powers of comprehension which, in other men and in other fields, may yet deserve success.

Yes, there was progress in the West’s knowledge of Islam.

Ibn Warraq

Ibn Warraq, Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Qur’anic criticism, was a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of many books, including What the Qur’an Really Says (Prometheus Books, 2002) and Which Koran? Variants, Manuscripts, Linguistics.

Below, the author concludes an examination of significant figures in the medieval West’s appraisal of Islam. Parts 1 and 2 appeared in the previous two issues.—Eds. Riccoldo Da Monte Croce (1243–1320) Riccoldo was born in 1243 in Florence. He joined the Dominican Order at the age of twenty-four and traveled in the Middle East as …

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