More Fitting to be Friends: Islam and Europe
One of the greatest works of European literature to come down to us from the Middle Ages, or indeed from any age, is Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Arthurian Romance Parzifal, written early in the thirteenth century.
We don’t know much about von Eschenbach, though he identifies himself as “something of a Minnesinger” in his book. Minnesingers are the German equivalent of the troubadours of Provence, those famous composers of verse and rhyme who filled Europe’s coffers with splendid poetry celebrating love and its virtues.
Here is a bit of verse written by the Occitan troubadour Arnaut Daniel, whom Dante referred to as “the better craftsman.” In this translation of L’Arua Amara, Ezra Pound rendered his Provençal into English:
The bitter air
Where softer winds set leaves,
Now in brakes are coy,
Scarce peep the wee
What gaud’s the work?
What good the glees?
I strive to shake!
Me hath she cast from high,
In fell disease
I lie, and deathly fearing. (1)
This excerpt exemplifies the themes of nature and the open road that properly belong to the troubadour’s heart, along with mortal concern for his idealized beloved, whose lack of favor is worse than icy death.
We can see in this poem an unambiguous shift in emphasis from Europe’s tradition of poetry praising God and king. Daniel holds nation and piety to be of less import than a glance from his beloved:
Pope and Emp’ror I count asses;
Let See and Domain combine them;
From them to her I’d revert
Who doth burn my heart and frost it,
Yet if she mend not her paces,
Kiss me ere New Year and melt
For my death to hell she’s fleeting. (2)
The poetic imagination of the troubadours, combined with the rich heritage of Celtic imagination, swept through Europe in the High Middle Ages, transforming its art and literature forever. In Arthurian romance we can see these two influences blend, with the troubadour lending Guinevere and Isolde to the idiom, and the Celt supplying fairydom, imperiled queens in enchanted castles, dragons, elves, and dwarves.
This genre of Arthurian romance reached its apex in the hands of two German masters, Gottfried von Strassburg (died c. 1210), who left us the story of Tristan and Isolde, and Wolfram von Eschenbach (died c. 1220), who supplied Europe’s greatest account of the quest for the Holy Grail in Parzifal.
Early thirteenth-century Europe was a lively place. In 1210, the Franciscan Order was established, and in 1216, Saint Dominic founded his order of Friars. Frederick II Hohenstaufen, called by Nietzsche the “first European,” was king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. He was a powerful force for the secularization of European polity, and a generous patron of the arts. He would briefly recapture Jerusalem for Christendom, after its knights had been driven out in 1189, by Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, known to Europe as Saladin.
This was the landscape in which Parzifal was composed. Its story is primarily concerned with its hero’s spritual transformation, as he seeks for the Holy Grail to bring renewal to the land. It is a wonderful and profound story, but here, I’d like to focus a bit on Parzifal’s family.
His father Gahmuret, the story goes, was king of Anjou in France. After establishing himself as a great knight, he traveled east as far as Baghdad, where he came into the service of the Baruch, or ruler, and distinguished himself greatly during the siege of Alexandria.
After leaving Iraq, Gahmuret wandered the Middle East until he came to the fictional land of Zazamanc, which was encircled by a hostile army. In true courtly fashion, Gahmuret came to the aid of Belacane, the Moorish queen of Zazamanc.
Gahmuret and Belacane fell in love and married, and their son, Feirefiz, combined his mother’s dark hue with his father’s whiteness. Von Eschenbach describes him as a blend of dark skin and light, mottled, like a magpie.
Now, through the course of many adventures, Gahmuret eventually returned to France, where he would marry his second wife Condwiramurs, and father Parzifal. He died, leaving Parzifal in his mother’s care, and the boy grew up ignorant of his heritage.
In time, Parzifal became a knight like his father, and served in the court of King Arthur, where he became involved in the quest for the Holy Grail. And much later, near the end of our tale, Parzifal came to face the army of his brother Feirefiz in battle, with each unknown to the other.
They met in solo combat on the field. Their battle raged and raged, and for the first time, each had met his equal. At length, Feirefiz threw his sword into the forest and called for parley, and they learned that they were brothers. At the discovery of their common heritage, “Parzival found treasure trove, the most precious he had ever lit on.” (3)
Recall that Feirefiz is the son of a Moorish queen. In von Eschenbach’s time, the Islamic Moors still ruled Spain, as they had centuries. The tide turned against the Muslims in Europe only at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, around the time Parzifal was written. And here we have a great European hero, whose father served the ruler of Baghdad, around the time the Crusading Knights were expelled from Palestine, and his beloved brother is a Muslim. This is really quite extraordinary.
If we take a closer look at the tradition from which von Eschenbach sprang, we will see that he is himself, in a sense, a half-brother of a Muslim tradition.
In the early thirteenth century, far from Germany, another great poet was setting down his own masterwork. The Perisan Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar was then composing The Conference of the Birds, in which a collection of fowl travel together to a far-off valley, in search of the King of Birds, the mythical Simorgh – a kind of phoenix, if you will. This wonderful allegory describes the Sufi path to union with God, with each valley along the way representing a stage of the contemplative path.
Like the troubadours and Minnesingers, Attar had little use for piety. In a long anecdote related in Conference, Attar tells the story of the Sheikh Sam’an, who lived a good Muslim life until he fell in love with a Christian girl in his travels. In many ways, the story is a mirror image of the story of Gahmuret in Parzifal.
In one shocking turn, the Sheikh’s friends and students urge him to return to his religious life, and he replies “Where is her face / That I may pray toward that blessèd place?” (4) He is actually suggesting that instead of praying toward Mecca and the Kab’aa, he will pray toward the face of his beloved.
In Europe, we find a close parallel to this episode in von Strassburg’s Tristan. The young lovers Tristan and Isolde bravely face death and damnation in the name of their love. In one episode, the two flee into the woods, and make their conjugal bed into an altar, substituting their erotic union for the sacrament of communion.
Now, I do not want to overstate the degree of toleration shown in the thirteenth century. The tale of Sheikh Sam’an is a cautionary tale, and he not only ends up returning to Islam, but converts his Christian love as well. Likewise, Feirefiz converts to Christianity before taking a bride in Parzifal.
Nevertheless, the sense of these episodes is unmistakeable. Parzival’s reconciliation with Feirefiz plays a decisive roll in the climax of the work, and much is made of his dual coloration, converging in a single man like a yin yang. In Attar’s Conference, the love of Sam’an for the Infidel is described at far greater length, and with far greater vitality and attention, than his perfunctory return to religious norms at the end.
In both cases, there is a sense of passing through your opposite and returning to yourself at a higher stage, and it involves the heart’s recognition that something is different, and something is the same.
Attar holds that the true love of God leads the aspirant past piety, through the gates of blasphemy, and into actual communion with the holy source. Piety is rooted in our socially-constructed idea of what God must be like, and it leads to the socially-consecrated image of God. True love for God, like the love of Tristan and Isolde, dares all, even damnation, in its ravenous hunger for the divine. He writes:
Islam and blasphemy have both been passed
By those who set out on love’s path at last;
Love will direct you to Dame Poverty,
And she will show the way to Blasphemy.
When neither Blasphemy nor Faith remain,
The body and the Self have both been slain;
Then the fierce fortitude the Way will ask
Is yours, and you are worthy of our task.
Begin the journey without fear; be calm;
Forget what is and what is not Islam;
Put childish dread aside – like heroes meet
The hundred problems which you must defeat. (5)
Compare this to Arnaut Daniel’s verse, which we saw above:
“Pope and Emp’ror I count asses;
Let See and Domain combine them;
From them to her I’d revert.”
This dramatic similarity is not a coincidence. The points of contact between the Muslim world and the world of Christendom were many and varied, and the encounter with the Sufi Dervishes left a deep mark on the European imagination. The celebration of love by the troubadours and Minnesingers may well carry the stamp of the Sufi poets. Anyone who has encountered Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi knows him to be the very voice of love’s song:
You are my life, you are my life, my life; you are my own, you are my own, my own.
You are my king, worthy of my passion; you are my candy, worthy of my teeth.
You are my light; dwell within these eyes of mine, O my eyes and fountain of life!
When the rose beheld you, it said to the lily, “My cypress tree came to my rose garden.”
Say, how are you in respect to two scattered things! your hair, and my distracted state?
The rope of your hair is my shackle, the well of your chin is my prison.
Where are you going, drunk, shaking your hands? Come to me, my laughing rose! (6)
Compare to Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan:
When the two lovers perceived that they had one mind, one heart, and but a single will between them, this knowledge began to assuage their pain and yet bring it to the surface. Each looked at the other and spoke with ever greater daring, the man to the maid, the maid to the man. Their shy reserve was over. He kissed her and she kissed him, lovingly and tenderly. Here was a blissful beginning for Love’s remedy: each poured and quaffed the sweetness that welled up from their hearts. (7)
The links between the courtly tradition of the troubadours and the Sufis have long been remarked, and it is in fact possible that the word “troubadour” itself is derived from an Arabic root tarab, meaning “to sing.” The thirteenth century appears to have been a time of love’s glory in much of the world, for it was then that Jayadeva wrote his sumptuous Gītagovinda in India, which we considered in an earlier post.
Not only were the crusading knights in frequent contact with Islamic ideas – a historical reality visible in mythopoetic guise in Gahmuret’s trip to Baghdad – but many of the greatest Sufi masters lived in Andalusian Spain. Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), widely regarded as the greatest Sufi philosopher, lived in Spain while von Eschenbach was writing. His work would come to exert a tremendous influence on Dante. In his comparative study The Legacy of Islam, R. A. Nicholson catalogs some of the features of the Divine Comedy that correspond to Ibn ‘Arabi’s descriptions, including “The infernal regions, the astronomical heavens, the circles of the mystic rose, the choirs of angels around the focus of the divine light, the three circles symbolizing the Trinity – all are described by Dante exactly as Ibnu’l-‘Arabi described them.” (8)
The knowledge of classical antiquity was alive in Arabic translation when it had been forgotten by Europe, and it was largely through contact with the Muslim world that the intellectual worlds of Greece and Rome were rediscovered in the West, triggering the Renaissance. For example, Thomas Aquinas (died 1274), one of the most important theologians in the history of Christianity, relied heavily on the Muslim philosopher Ibn Roschd (Averroes) for his interpretation of Aristotle.
Saint Francis of Assisi (died 1226) was a troubadour before he became a renunciate and founded a new monastic order. The Sheikh Idries Shah has made a persuasive argument that Francis used Sufi poetic imagery in many of his writings, including his famous “Canticle of the Sun,” written in 1224. Francis tried three times to travel to the East – first to Syria, then to Morocco, and last to Damietta in Egypt, where he met with and greatly impressed the Sultan Malik el-Kamil. (9)
Our cursory review here could be dramatically extended, but I trust the point has been made. Many of the masterworks of the European tradition were written in dialog with the world of Islam. The poetical, narrative, and religious imagination of the High Middle Ages, which established a legacy that continues to underlie European culture to this day, is of mixed heritage.
It is more important than ever to keep this in mind, when so many forces are at work in the United States and Europe that dehumanize Muslims in the cultural imagination. The image of Islam evokes for many Europeans and Americans the shadow of the West, appearing as the embodiment of the irrational, the totalitarian, the fanatic, the Terrorist – the barbarians at the gates.
But as von Eschenbach saw and sang 800 years ago, Muslims are not evil, or good, but a blend of the dark and the light, like everyone else.
There is always the possibility that if we throw off the sword, and take off our respective masks, we may find that we are brothers and sisters of the same father. We may find, as Parzifal and Feirefiz saw at once, “It was more fitting for them to be friends than bitter enemies.”
1) Pound E. “L’aura Amara,” from Pound; Poems and Translations. The Library of America. 2003. pg. 489.
2) ibid., pg. 493.
3) von Eschenbach W. Parzival. trans. by Hatto, AT. Penguin Classics. 1980. pg. 372.
4) Attar FUD. The Conference of the Birds. trans. by Darbandi A, and Davis D. Penguin Classics. 1984. pg. 61.
5) Attar FUD., pg. 57.
6) Rumi JAD. Mystical Poems of Rumi 2. trans. by Arberry AJ. The University of Chicago Press. 1979. pg. 50.
7) von Strassburg G. Tristan. trans. by Hatto, AT. Penguin Classics. 1960. pg. 200.
8) Nicholson RA. op. cit. Campbell J. Creative Mythology; The Masks of God. Penguin Books. 1968. pg. 129-30.
9) Shah I. “The Sufis and Francis of Assisi.” http://www.reformation.org/franciscan-sufis.html. Retrieved April 16, 2012.