A Dominican Preacher in 13th c. Iraq

ISLAM. Montecroce, Riccoldo da (ca. 1243-1320): Luther, Martin, (1483-1546)

Verlegung des Alcoran Bruder Richardi, Prediger Ordens, Anno 1300

Wittenberg: Durch Hans Lufft, 1542



A very fine copy in 19thc. vellum. Historiated title page border (Luther 39). The text is clean and has good margins. Tear to one corner with no loss.

This is the first edition of Luther's German translation of a Latin translation by Bartholomaeus de Monte Arduo that Arduo made from the Greek translation by Demetrius Cydones of the Latin original by Riccoldo da Montecroce. The Latin original was printed at Seville in 1500 under the title "Improbatio Alcorani". Arduo's Latin translation first appeared in 1507, at Basel.

"Few Europeans in the Middle Ages encountered Islam and Muslims as closely as the Italian Dominican Riccoldo da Montecroce. He spent maybe ten years in Baghdad, learnt Arabic, studied with Muslim scholars, and began his own translation of the Qurʾān. He also wrote a series of works based on his experiences, the most important of them LibellusContra Legem Saracenorum (‘Against the religion of the Saracens’), also known as Improbatio Alcorani (‘Refutation of the Qurʾān’), which continued to influence European Christian attitudes well into the early modern period. Unlike the great majority of Christians who wrote against Islam in the Middle Ages, Riccoldo did so on the basis of extensive personal knowledge."(Rita George-Tvrtković, A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq: Riccoldo da Montecroce’s Encounter with Islam)

Riccoldo wrote his 'Against the religion of the Saracens’ after his return to Europe about 1300. Between his arrival in Baghdad in 1288 and his return to Europe, Riccoldo's views and expectations had undergone a dramatic evolution. "The initial optimism of the Dominican missionary as he set off to convert the Saracen infidels in 1288 gives way to astonishment and admiration of the Muslims of Baghdad then to despair following [the fall of Acre and the enslavement of its Christian population] in 1291, then finally increasing frustration at his failure to bring the Saracens and Mongols to Christianity."(Tolan, p. 20)

"The crux of Riccoldo's text is to show to potential missionaries (and through them, presumably, to Muslims themselves) the irrationality of the Koran, of Muslim belief, of Muslim practice."(Ibid.) This irrationality can in part be traced to the teaching program of the madrasas, which Riccoldo tells us, were established for the suppression of the study of philosophy, which had previously flourished in the Iraq but had threatened Islam:

'There arose against the [Sunnis and Shiites] certain Saracens expert in philosophy. They started to read the books of Aristotle and Plato and started to despise all the sects of the Saracens and the Koran itself. When someone warned the Caliph of Baghdad about this, he built in Baghdad two very prestigious schools, Nizamiyya and Mustansiriyya. He reformed the study of the Koran and ordered that whoever came from the provinces to study the Koran in Baghdad, these students would have rooms and stipends for their needs. He also ordered that the Saracens and those studying the Koran should in no way study philosophy. And they do not consider those who study philosophy to be good Saracens, because they all despise the Koran.'

"[Riccoldo makes] the founding of the madrasas into a clever anti-intellectual ploy: the point of having government-funded educational institutes, he tries to make his reader believe, is precisely to squelch philosophical reading and speculation by assuring that only the Koran is read and taught, not any philosophical texts that will contradict it. Not that he is completely wrong: the Nizamiyya madrasa, founded by Nizam al-Mulk in 1067, indeed became a bastion for orthodoxy against philosophical speculation. Yet these facts are twisted to fit Riccoldo's polemical needs; it is in fact in Paris, not Baghdad, that thirteenth-century clerics forbade the study of Aristotle. Yet for Riccoldo it is Islam that is illogical, and those who stubbornly adhere to it merely display their irrationality… to which there is only one remedy: 'Consequently, when certain doubts arise in the Koran and certain questions which the Saracens cannot answer, they should not only be invited but compelled into the banquet of truth.' Where dialogue fails, Riccoldo recommends force."(Ibid.)

Luther's "translation" - A New Polemic against Islam

"I have read this book of Brother Ricardo’s several times, but couldn’t believe there were reasonable people in the world who could be persuaded by the Devil to believe in such shameful things, and I had always thought it had been made up by the Walachian scribes... I would gladly have read the Qur’an myself, and was surprised...that no one had translated the Qur’an into Latin for a long time...so that even though Mahomet had reigned for over nine hundred years...no one felt them- selves compelled to find out what Mahomet’s belief was..."  (From Luther’s 1542 preface to his translation of Brother Ricardo’s Confutatio Alcorani)

Luther translated the "Improbatio" in the same year that the first edition of the Koran (in Latin) was published in Europe. It was also in 1542 that it was decided, at the Diet of Speyer, that a new campaign should be mounted against the Turks. Luther's German version is a free translation of Montecroce's text, with new material and new arguments by Luther. He supplemented, for instance, Montecroce's text with his own criticism of Islamic marriage law and the sensual understanding of Paradise. Luther's reasons for printing the text, made clear in his introduction, were different from those of its author, and what Luther ultimately gives us is a hybrid text of Montecroce's and his own.

"As Hermann Barge points out, two principal texts formed the general basis for Luther’s knowledge of Islam: the Confutatio Alcorani of Brother Ricardo of Montecroce and Nicholas of Cusa’s famous commentary on the Qur’an, the Cribratio Alcorano. Luther’s desire to obtain concrete information about “Mohammedanism”—even if cynically interpreted as more of a manifestation of instrumental reason rather than communicative—is striking… And yet, we will see how Luther’s indebtedness to the fourteenth century polemicist over the distinguished Christian Neoplatonist indicates a very specific and meditated choice. To a large extent, the pitch and tone of Luther’s diatribes against Islam will draw on Ricardo rather than Cusa, will see Islam as an opposite pole rather than a corrupt (yet partially salvageable) version of Christianity, and ultimately will allow a strategy of abuse and utter alterity to override a search for resemblance and proximity… 

"Luther’s amazement that “reasonable people” (vernunftige Menschen) could actually believe the “shameful” things he had found in the Qur’an is worth noting, as Luther’s views on the relationship between Islam and reason are often inconsistent. There are frequently moments where he defends Christian practices such as communion against “Turks, Jews and our reason”,whilst in the 1529 text “On War Against the Turk” the Judaeo-Islamic rejection of the divinity of Christ is seen as “extraordinarily pleasing to reason”.Whenever the word irrationalis comes up to describe Islam in Brother Ricardo’s treatise, however, Luther throws himself into mistranslating the term with remarkable gusto, producing an interesting range of variants— ‘foolish’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘against God and all reason’ and even ‘bestial’ (viehisch).A curiously triangular oscillation of uncertainties is set up here between mind, body and faith; because Luther’s fide, being doctrine alone, can have nothing to do with the world, the “Mohammedanism” which Luther forever seems to associate with worldliness and worldly things has to oscillate between a fleshly, animal, insensate creed and a false, pagan, Sophist-icated version of Judaism. Naturally, Luther’s own deep reservations concerning the limitations of Aristotelian philosophy as a foundation for theology meant he had to be careful in his vilification of Islam as ‘irrational’, trying to ascribe to Islam all the negative aspects of the word (animal-like, bestial, etc.) whilst avoiding any positive, anti-rationalist connotations... 

"As Barge’s critical introduction to the text amply demonstrates, Luther’s translation of Brother Ricardo’s polemic is not merely loose but selectivelyflexible. Whole passages are missed out, phrases are condensed, ideas Luther found difficult to agree with are simply omit- ted, or replaced with Luther’s own thoughts. Luther’s conviction, for example, that Turks and Saracens were unconvertible (können nicht . . . bekeren) causes him to leave out Ricardo’s Latin expression to the contrary at the end of the second chapter.Overtly Catholic phrases such as splendore miraculorum are rendered more palatable for a Protestant tongue (Luther writes “wonderful clarity” instead). All of which suggests a profoundly pragmatic approach towards the tract on Luther’s part; the Reformer’s care and concern to preserve the original in the case of the Bible and the Qur’an are not reflected in his translation of Ricardo—rather than the work of reference it is introduced as, the more immediate function of Luther’s translation appears to be that of ammunition."(Ian Almond, Deconstructing Luther's Islam)

VD 16; R 2331; Benzing, J. Lutherbibliographie, 3404; Luther, J. Titeleinfassungen der Reformationszeit, 39. Literature: John Tolan, Looking East before 1453, in Cultural Encounters Between East and West, 1453-1699, edited by Matthew Birchwood, Matthew Dimmock,p. 21 ff.