Worried about why so many un-reached people groups are Islamic, or are you bothered that no one seems to have compassion for Muslim refugees fleeing civil wars in their homeland? Modern day people of faith often struggle to understand other religions, but this is not a new problem. The wall of fear between Christians and Muslims was built long ago – sometimes on bloodstained battlefields and sometimes in the library.
While some church scholars and academics in the Middle Ages certainly understood Islamic theology and wrote about it correctly, the regular population was a different story. In the French poem The Song of Roland (written between the 11th and 12th centuries), Islam is understood as a dystopian parody of Christian theology. In the poem, the Spanish Muslims (called Saracens by the author) are assigned their own un-holy trinity to worship made up of Mohammed, Termagant, and Apollo. Of course, real Islam is fiercely anti-Trinitarian, yet this direct parallel served the anti-Muslim narrative of Christendom at the time. While the misunderstanding that Muslims worship Mohammed is still quite common, Termagant, a female god-like figure seems to be a creative aberration of folklore writers probably chosen to be particularly more offensive in The Song of Roland because of her female gender and her violent character.
Apollo, the final member of the trio, is more nuanced. His worship by Muslims seems to be unique to The Song of Roland, but his identity can be interpreted in many different ways. First, it could simply be a reference to the Greek god Apollo who symbolized pagan cult worship practices. It is also possible that the Greek god was chosen because of the Muslim connection to Greek philosophy and literature during the Medieval period. While Europe banned all such writings, Islamic scholars had translated major Greek works into Arabic, and these were available for educational purposes just across the French border when Muslims controlled most of what is now Spain.
An alternate interpretation of the name is that of Apollyon – “The Destroyer” in Greek. This figure of the New Testament book of Revelation is the angel (or messenger) of the abyss or bottomless pit. While interpretation is widely varied, some theologians believe him to be either the anti-Christ or another agent of the devil while others, (including the Church of Latter Day Saints) believe Apollyon to be Satan himself. Whether Satan or his agent, this is certainly a weighty claim to make of your enemy if this is the correct interpretation of the poem’s intent.
This popular misunderstanding of Islamic theology, whether willful or not, certainly fueled crusading fervor as armies flowed out of Europe towards the Middle East. Historian Thomas Madden and others have made an effort to reintroduce the complexity of religion being inseparably mingled with politics and economics in regards to the Crusades and Medieval Christian culture in general. This is done in a direct effort to counter revisionist and Marxist historians of the last century who tried to strip away the centrality of religious motivation in Christian-Muslim military conflict and replace it with a colonial and economic push-pull model. These were certainly factors, but it is simply impossible to separate the conjoined worlds of sacred and secular during the Medieval period. Thus, understanding that what Christian’s knew about Islam during this period is one way to understand their political and social actions.
Why does it matter?
There is no better way to dehumanize and literally demonize the enemy in a world dominated by religion than to pit your earthly enemy on the side of your spiritual enemy. Medieval Christians believed they lived and fought on the side of God. It only makes sense that their enemy would be God’s enemy as well.
Today’s Christians need to correctly understand Islamic theology and practice if they ever hope to have meaningful communication with the ever-growing Muslim population living without the good news. The church should be the first to speak up for all humans not because they are compromising their own beliefs, but because they understand the need to replace “The Five Pillars” with the fearless monolith of Christ.