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A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq:
Riccoldo da Montecroce’s Encounter with Islam
by rita george-tvrtkovic
brepols, 248 pages, $116

Toward the end of the thirteenth century, a friar named Riccoldo da Montecroce left his Dominican house in Florence to make the long journey to the Middle East, but unlike other pilgrims he did not have the biblical sites as his final destination. He planned to travel to Baghdad, the Muslim cultural center and former residence of the caliph on the Tigris River. His aim was to learn Arabic and spread the Christian faith among Muslims. He found instead a thriving religious culture that challenged his own faith.

Riccoldo was not the first Dominican to live among Muslims for an extended period of time. A Dominican house of studies had been established in Baghdad some fifty years earlier. What makes his journey noteworthy is that he wrote a highly personal account of his experiences with detailed references to Muslim beliefs and practices. A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq provides the first English translation of two of his writings: the Liber Peregrinationis ( Book of Pilgrimage ) and Five Letters on the Fall of Acre (really meditative essays, one addressed to God the Father and another to the Virgin Mary). The translator, Rita George-Tvrtkovic, an associate professor of theology at Benedictine University, also offers a well-informed analysis of the historical and religious settings that brought them forth.

Since the eleventh century, Christians in the West had been writing about Islam, but few had firsthand knowledge of it. The Qur’an had been translated into Latin in the twelfth century, but most writers relied on a few polemical works and had no acquaintance with Muslim literature. They drew on the same sources, repeating what they had learned from earlier polemicists such as the Venerable Bede. Following John of ­Damascus, the first Christian to write about Islam, they viewed Islam as a Christian heresy, reveled in unflattering details about the Prophet’s life (like the story about his relation to the wife of his adopted son), repeated stock quotations from the Qur’an (that Jesus is “word and spirit of God,” for example), and claimed that Islam traces its roots back to Ishmael, not to Abraham.

Though Riccoldo arrived in the Muslim world with customary Western views of Islam, he was a ready learner, and his book is filled with wonder at what he observed. One of his favorite words is “stupefied.” “I was stupefied by the Muslim devotion to prayer,” he writes. Again and again his admiration for the Muslim way of life breaks through, and he uses the term “works of perfection” to refer to their devotion to study, regularity in prayer, faithfulness in almsgiving, hospitality, reverence for the name of God, and community solidarity. Other Western writers thought the Muslims were “desert wanderers,” ignorant of everything except war and farming, but Riccoldo found them intelligent and urbane, comparing their schools to those in Paris.

He esteemed the Qur’an and treated it with reverence, even though he thought it morally lax, confused, obscure, mendacious, irrational, and violent (“their law began by the sword”), and he held that the law of Islam is not of God. He learned to read Arabic and was captivated by the Qur’an’s language: “The order of the words is grammatically and rhythmically very beautiful. . . . For the whole book is resonant and rhythmical.”

At one place, in the midst of criticizing the Qur’an for denying the “most holy Trinity,” he says, addressing God, that he reads the Qur’an in Arabic “in your presence.” And in an even more striking passage he addresses Christ: “I beg you, read what [the prophet] says about your mother, and your apostles. As you know, frequently when reading the Qur’an in Arabic with a heart full of utter grief and impatience, I have placed the book open on your altar before your image and that of your most holy mother, and said, ‘read, read what Mahomet says.’”

He traveled for three and a half months with Muslim camel drivers in the deserts of Arabia and Persia, and was deeply impressed by their “solicitude” and “devotion” to prayer. There was never “any hardship or crisis,” he writes, that prevented them from praying at fixed hours day and night. When they prayed, the faces of some “drain[ed] of all color and seem[ed] enraptured, some swoon[ed], while others dance[d], change[d] their voice, or [shook] their heads.” They never prayed without “washing their anus and penis, then their hands and face, and lastly the soles of their feet. Then they pray.”

By comparison to other medieval Western portrayals of Islam, Riccoldo’s Book of Pilgrimage is a fresh, realistic, and perceptive portrait of Islam as it was practiced in the lands of its birth. Riccoldo entered deeply and sympathetically into the world of Islam, and his book represents a genuine religious encounter. But there is more here than observation and description. Riccoldo was deeply affected by the fate of Christians under Muslim rule and the historical import of the fall of Acre in 1291.

Acre, an ancient city on the Mediterranean coast near present-day Haifa, had been captured by the Crusaders in 1104, and for almost two centuries, with some interruptions, it remained a thriving port and commercial center with ties to the West. It was a symbol of Christian strength, and when it fell to the Mamluks from Egypt the news soon reached Baghdad.

Riccoldo was dismayed to learn of the slaughter of Christians and the death of his Dominican brothers, and was astonished to find vestments, books, tunics, and breviaries owned by Dominicans for sale in the markets of Baghdad. Someone even gave him a habit pierced by a spear or sword and stained with blood. “I said: ‘this is the habit of my brothers, the habit of my order!’ And I bought it for a modest price.”

The fall of Acre drove him to despair and a crisis of faith, for the city’s demise seemed to portend the ultimate triumph of Islam. Why, he asks, if Christ is the truth, has God “given so much power against the Christians?” “I fear,” he writes, “that soon not a single Christian will be found in the entire world.”

In the centuries after the birth of Christ, Christianity had spread through the Middle East, even reaching India and China. But with the rise of Islam in the early seventh century, the momentum of history in the East shifted to Islam. In less than a decade after the death of Muhammad, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Alexandria came under Arab rule.

Riccoldo is very conscious of this history, and he even reckons the years from then to his own day. The Prophet Muhammad “has prevailed over us for nearly seven hundred years,” he writes. The early success of the Crusaders had lifted hopes that the tide of history could be reversed, but when Acre fell, the hard facts of historical inevitability could no longer be ignored. God seemed to be abandoning his people, says Riccoldo, as Christians in Jerusalem, Judea, Galilee, Syria, Antioch, Tripoli, and Acre became Saracens (Muslims).

“Now”the term is his­Riccoldo senses that the triumph of Islam over Christians in the Middle East is not a temporary setback in the Church’s mission but an irreversible political and social transformation. So shaken is he by the fall of Acre that he wonders aloud whether it is true, as the Qur’an says, that the patriarchs and prophets were Muslims. Riccoldo even has doubts about Christ. In his letter to the Virgin Mary, he says to her, “Until now I could not believe that Jesus Christ your son would become a Saracen.”

In the end, however, he holds firm. The Saracens could make him a camel driver, he writes, “but never a Saracen.”

Although A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq is primarily a translation and a historical study of the writings of Riccoldo da Montecroce, George-Tvrtkovic, the translator, has a theological agenda. The final chapter in the book is an essay on “interreligious experience.” She has an interest in how religious experience can be a “critical and productive force” in theology.

Riccoldo, in her view, is an example of the loss of balance that can come when one enters, as a matter of experience, into another religious tradition. Her questions are good ones, and she has ample material from Riccoldo to illustrate the dissonance he felt between his Christian faith and the convictions of Muslims.

Yet the appeal to personal religious experience can carry one only so far in dealing with Islam. For Riccoldo, it was not the most important factor. After one tallies up what he has to say about his love of the Qur’an, his high regard for Muslim scholars, and his fascination with Muslim prayer, something else needs to be added.

For it was not these things that prompted his spiritual vertigo. These he could admire and live with. What upset his equilibrium was the loss of Acre and its consequences for the ­future of Christianity. The success of Islam seemed evidence of the truth of the Qur’an. “If the Qur’an is not the word of God,” he writes, “then from where does such honor [shown the Qur’an] come, and for so long, nearly seven hundred years?” To which he adds: “I have found the Saracens to be very fortunate in temporal matters.”

What is missing from George-Tvrtkovic’s analysis of interreligious experience is any discussion of the spiritual significance of “temporal matters.” She commends Riccoldo for his “honest recognition” of the conflicting emotions he felt as he came face to face with Islam. But for Riccoldo, history and politics were at the heart of his experience of Islam. In a way Westerners living thousands of miles away could never know, he learned that Islam was more than a creed or a set of devotional practices. It was one thing to sit at the feet of scholars in Baghdad, quite another to witness at first hand the “servitude” and “degradation” of the Christian people.

As illuminating as his encounter with Muslim spiritual life was, he could not ignore the facts on the ground. In a touching passage addressed to St. Augustine, he says: “All of [North] Africa is possessednay a great part of the world is possessed, I sayby the Saracens who honor the Qur’an.”

It is no simple matter to discern what Riccoldo’s experience of Islam was. As I read the five letters on the fall of Acre, what came through most vividly was their plaintiveness. Again and again he cries out to God to deliver the Christian people and “confirm the truth and sincerity” of his faith. There is no doubt that the years in Baghdad gave him a depth of feeling without parallel among Westerners.

In the end, however, it was his “grief and sadness of heart” over Christians in the East that shaped his view of Islam. He prays that the Muslims may come to know the one God made known in Jesus Christ: “As for the Saracens, I humbly beseech you as much as I can, O Father of heaven and earth, to show them that you are the true God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for many among them sin more out of ignorance than ­wickedness. To you and all your saints be honor and glory, to the ages of ages. Amen.”

Robert Louis Wilken, chairman of the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.