Peter Against the Saracens

March 2018By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

Writings Against the Saracens (The Fathers of the Church: Mediaeval Continuation, Vol. 16).  By Peter the Venerable. Translated by Irven M. Resnick. Catholic University of America Press. 184 pages. $39.95.



Peter the Venerable, whose family name was de Montboissier, was the abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Cluny, France, from A.D. 1122 until his death in 1156. He wrote the first of his two works, A Summary of the Entire Heresy of the Saracens, in 1143, and the second, Against the Sect of the Saracens, after the Second Crusade (1146-1149). The first is an epitome of the life of Muhammad and his teachings, and the second, which survived in a single 12th-century manuscript, is a rational argument against Islam.

Abbot Peter prepared for these works by traveling to Toledo, Spain, in 1142 and commissioning at “great expense” the first-ever Latin translation of the Qur’an and a few other Arabic texts. In his learned introduction, Irven M. Resnick, who holds the Chair of Excellence in Judaic Studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, says it is not an exaggeration to call Abbot Peter “the initiator of Islamic studies in the West” and this Toledan Collection the cause of a “substantial growth in the knowledge of Islam” and of later “efforts to refute it.”

The Latin translator of the Qur’an was Englishman Robert of Ketton; he completed it in the summer of 1143. Ketton’s marginal notations to the text show a “detailed familiarity with Islam.” While the Qur’an was its most important text, the Toledan Collection also included hadiths, a polemic titled Apology of al-Kindi, and Herman of Dalmatia’s translation of the life and teachings of Muhammad. Abbot Peter took the added precaution of hiring a Muslim (a “Saracen”) to assist in the translating, “so that no one will lack complete faith in the translation, and so that nothing could be removed from notice by some deceit of our own.” Peter brought these texts back to Cluny and started searching for someone qualified to write a treatise against Islam.

At the head of this volume we find a letter Peter sent to St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1144, urging him to write such a treatise and offering to send “a book which we have not yet sent to you,” possibly the Toledan Collection. Peter praised the ancient Fathers, who “never passed over in silence even the most trivial heresy,” and he lamented that nothing had yet been written against “the chief error of errors,” Islam, which had spread to “nearly half the world.” St. Bernard never composed a treatise, but he did accompany King Louis VII to Vézelay in 1146 to call for the Second Crusade against further Islamic encroachment.

At the end of the Summary Peter calls it a “great disgrace” that the Church has not “replied at all to this one [heresy] alone,” or “attempted to inquire — even a little or inadequately — how great a plague it is or whence it came.” He “tarried in Spain” and had the law, doctrine, and life of Muhammad translated into Latin “so that some servant of God, with the Holy Spirit enkindling him, would be spurred on to refute it.” He waited a long time, hoping to find someone to “move the pen and growl with the zeal of holy Christianity,” but in the end he had to undertake the work himself.

Among the doctrines of Islam Peter gives in the Summary is that Muhammad denied the Trinity and that God the Creator is our “Father.” Muhammad accepted that Christ was conceived by a divine spirit without a human father and was the son of the Virgin Mary, but he denied that Christ is the Son of God and that He is God. Muhammad accepted Christ as a good, truthful prophet, but he denied that Christ died and was resurrected, asserting instead that He slipped from the hands of the Jews, ascended into Heaven in mortal flesh, and will remain there until the Antichrist arrives. He will then return to defeat the Antichrist and teach His law to Jews and Christians. Then all will die, resurrect in their bodies, and go to the Judgment. Christ will not judge, however; God alone will judge. After this comes Hell or Paradise, the latter consisting entirely of “the embrace and sexual satisfaction of the most beautiful women and virgins.”

Peter sums up Muhammad’s doctrine by linking it to three Christian heresies: “He denies the Trinity with Sabellius, rejects the deity of Christ with his own Nestorius, [and] repudiates the death of the Lord along with Manichaeus, although he does not deny his return to the heavens.” Peter uses the phrase his own Nestorius because in the life of Muhammad found in the Toledan Collection, the Nestorian monk Sergius is a big influence on Muhammad, along with two Jews who taught him Talmudic lore.

Against the Sect of the Saracens, the second work in this volume, is divided into a prologue and two “books.” In the prologue, which opens with a prayer to the Holy Spirit, Peter presents a long list of ancient heresies refuted by the Church Fathers and warns that at the Judgment, learned clerics will be condemned not only for their idle and harmful words but also for their “damnable silence.” For “every wrong against the understanding of the faith ought to be reproved and, if it can be done, corrected.” Peter also grieves over the peoples conquered by Muslims in the preceding 550 years “not by gentle reason but by violent incursion.” If all the heresies of the past 1,100 years were to be “assembled together on a balance scale,” they would not “equal this one.” To those clerics who say that Islam is not a heresy and therefore need not be refuted, Peter replies that the Saracens are indeed heretics because they “receive certain things from the Christian faith in the manner of heretics, and reject other things.” For example, the Saracens “say that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, that he is greater than every man and even than Muhammad himself; they affirm that he lived without sin, that he proclaimed truths, that he performed wonders; they confess that he was the spirit of God, the word of God — but not the Spirit of God or the Word as we understand or express them.”

In the first part of Against the Sect, Peter tells the followers of Muhammad that they are the only religious practitioners in the world who are forbidden to engage in debates about the highest good. Rather, they are commanded “by law to prevent the very beginnings of a discussion with stones or swords or some other kind of death.” The Qur’an declares plainly: “Do not dispute with those that have the law…. It is better for you to kill, than to argue” (2:187, 214). They are to model their lives after Muhammad, who “took up arms instead of reason” and “turned to rocks, clubs, or swords, giving no response to one asking questions.” Though human laws throughout the world differ in many respects, Peter says, they all agree on this point: “killing is much worse than an argument.” One is still “entirely free” after an argument to “approve or condemn” what was said. “Does this pertain to any doctrine other than yours?” Peter asks. “Truly it pertains to no other.” He tells Muslims, in all justice, to “put off killing, meanwhile, those you believe to be blasphemers,” until you know “by the indubitable test of truth that your prophet was sent by God.”

Muhammad taught that the sacred books of Jews and Christians were divine but that “those first books perished” and later ones were “falsified or corrupted.” The books of the Jews were supposedly lost on the way back from Babylon when “the ass carrying the divine Law” strayed away into the wilderness. Peter asks if it is reasonable to suppose that all the priests and Levites guarding those writings were distracted at one and the same time. Besides, the Jews would surely have had more than one copy of those writings, since even 50 Jews living in one place in Spain have “in their synagogues the entire Law, all the prophets, and other books of the Hebrew language.” And how did Ezra, on the Jews’ return to Jerusalem, “create a fake Law so quickly?” How did he dare bring out “the corrupted Law” and read it “in view of the entire people”?

As for the Christian writings, even if it were true that they were all lost in the Roman Empire during times of persecution, they still would have survived in the kingdoms of the Ethiopians, Persians, Medes, and Indians, because those writings had been dispersed all over the known world. Peter challenges the Muslims to show “with a sure argument that they have perished.” If they can’t, it follows that the writings “were safeguarded by the Christians” and neither perished nor were falsified. The burden of proof is on the Muslims. Is it reasonable to suppose that these books were falsified “while no Christians protested”? Did they “all corrupt at the same time the books they received”? Did the “whole world agree to the fraud”? Peter hopes to prevail by such rational arguments, more than by another crusade.

In the second part of Against the Sect, Peter asks Muslims to consider whether Muhammad was a prophet. Peter defines a prophet as “one who discloses to mortal men matters unknown either from the past or the present or the future, taught not by human understanding but inspired by the Spirit of God.” Then he divides prophecies regarding the future into prophecies about the near and distant future, and into universal, particular, and personal prophecies. He gives many examples of such prophecies from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, Elisha, and Daniel.

Peter notes that Muhammad “often called himself a prophet in his own Qur’an” and had Allah call him a prophet too, yet Muhammad “never offered up even one single prophetic word.” In the Qur’an, Allah allegedly tells Muhammad, “You will never come to them with God’s manifest miracles, seeing that they reject them as hateful and pernicious, and they have contradicted the truth coming to them” (6:4-5). Peter, commenting on this passage, observes that once the Jews saw how Moses came with signs and wonders, they believed him, as did those who witnessed the “great and countless miracles” of Christ and His Apostles. By this very Qur’anic passage, Peter says, it can be seen that Mohammed was no prophet: “For when you assert that God did not give you signs, surely you deny that you are a prophet.” The biblical prophets, on the other hand, “proved that they are prophets without a trace of doubt, by manifest signs, clear miracles, and from the outcomes of the things they foretold.”

Peter’s treatise can be summed up thus: “Let a discourse based on reason pursue the matter proposed.” In other words, put away your swords and “prove,” whether “from an authority or by reason,” that Muhammad was indeed a prophet.

This volume concludes with an appendix containing the proposed chapter headings for Against the Sect of the Saracens. These headings suggest that we may have only a small part of the intended treatise and that, sadly, Abbot Peter died before his work was finished. Who will take up his pen to complete the refutation of this heresy?



DOSSIER: Islam



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The writings of Ann Barbeau Gardiner are treasures to me. I am sorry I didnít cut out all her articles before giving my NOR magazines away. How I wish I could share them on twitter. Perhaps she could have them printed in book form? Thank you for this in particular. It is full of surprising bits of knowledge. Thank you so much! Posted by: dbwheeler
March 17, 2018 10:02 AM EDT
Aha. I found I can share it on twitter. 😎 Posted by: dbwheeler
March 17, 2018 10:07 AM EDT
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