Medieval Islam & The Dialogue Against the Jews (Peter Alfonsi)

Petrus Alphonsi (d. 1116) was a Jewish Spanish physicianwriterastronomer, and polemicist, who converted to Christianity in 1106. He is also known just as Alphonsi, and as Peter Alfonsi or Peter Alphonso and was born Moses Sephardi). Born in Islamic Spain, he mostly lived in England and France after his conversion (wiki). He is the author of Dialogue Against the Jews in which a protagonist names “Petrus” argues for Chrisitainity against a Jew named “Moses.” The dialogues reflects a contest between Alfonsi and his previous self. In the course of the dialogue against Judaism, there is an interesting chapter (5th Titulus) in which “Moses” asks why “Petrus” did not convert to Islam, which “Moses” describes in glowing terms. “Petrus” will go on to trash Islam, but the opening gambit put in the mouth of a Spanish Jew, a polemical persona of the Christian author’s former Jewish self is itself nothing short of remarkable for this particular image of Islam in medieval times. I am not so interested in posting here the response from “Petrus.” I want to rest for now with the image of a perfect religion.

Here’s what “Moses” had to say about Islam:

Moses: Up to this point, you have shown how worthless and inconsistent the faith of the Jewish nation is in every respect, and how irrational and unwelcome is its service to God; or you have demonstrated and disclosed, with the clearest arguments, why you have withdrawn from the faith of this same nation, and you have shown me the extent to which I have remained in error up to now. But I wonder why, when you abandoned your paternal faith, you chose the faith of the Christians rather than the faith of the Saracens, with whom you were always associated and raised. For I should like to bring to bear whatever obstacles I shall be able to, not only in regard to the Hebraic [sect] but even against that sect, so that, just as you hold out an argument about our [faith], so, too, you will hold out anargument concerning that one, with which it can be demolished. For you were always, as I said, associated with them and you were raised among them; you read [their] books, and you understand the language. You ought to have chosen this [part] before the rest, which is known to be more pleasing and more suitable than the others, so that I would take their role for myself. Indeed [their] law is generous. It contains many commands concerning the pleasures of this present life, by which fact divine love is shown to have been greatest toward them. Equally, it promises ineffable joys to its practicing members in return. If you should investigate the basis of this law, you will find that it is grounded on an unshakable foundation of reason. It is interesting that a  sign of this, namely, that God loved them and was unwilling to burden them with many precepts but spared them instead, is that he only commanded them to pray five times each day, but that to have perfect purity always before they pray, they should properly wash the buttocks [culum], sexual parts, hands, arms, mouth, nose, ears, eyes, hair and, last, the feet. Once having done this, they declaim in public, confessing the one God, who has none like or equal to him, and that Mohammad is his prophet. Also, they fast for an entire month during the year. On the other hand, when fasting, they eat at night time, but abstain during the day, so that, from that time of day when they will be able to distinguish a white thread from a black one by sight, until the sun sets, no one eats or drinks, nor presumes to befoul himself by intercourse with his wife. After the setting of the sun until twilight of the next day, however, it is always permitted to them to enjoy food and drink and their own wives, as much as pleases them. If someone is burdened with an illness or is on a journey, however, for as long as the period of his languor or his journey shall last, he is permitted to eat and to enjoy whatever he will; yet nevertheless later he should correct, when he is at liberty to do so, what he had fulfilled less from the necessity either of the illness or of the journey.

Moreover, all are commanded to go to the house of God once each year, which must be seen in Mecca, and there to worship, for the sake of a solitary self-examination; and, having clothed themselves with seamless garments, to circle it and, just as the law commands, to throw rocks backwards from between their legs to stone the devil. Moreover, they say that Adam constructed this house for the Lord when he had been banished from paradise, and it was a place of prayer for all his children, until Abraham came. Abraham, the servant of God, strengthened and restored it, however, and offered vows to the Lord in it, and offered sacrifices, and after [his] death left it to his son named Ishmael, and across all the centuries it remained for him and for all his children a place for praying, until Mohammad was born. After he was born, God promised it as an inheritance to him and to all his generations, as they claim. Besides this, their prophets are commanded to despoil, to capture, to slay, to pursue, and to blot out in every way the adversaries of God, unless they have chosen to repent and to be converted to their faith, or unless they have paid the tax of servitude imposed on them. All flesh is permitted to them to eat, moreover, except the flesh and blood of the pig [and] likewise carrion. And they reject whatever has been consecrated in the name of anything except God. In addition to this, it is permitted to them to have four lawful wives at the same time, and, having divorced one, to accept another at any time, though only so long as they never exceed the number four. This is observed in divorce, too: that it is permitted to divorce and to remarry the same one, up to three times. It will be permitted to have female slaves [empticiae] and captives, as many as [a man] will, and he will have unrestricted power for selling them and buying them back again, [yet] in such a way that once he has made one pregnant, he can in no way bind her by the yoke of another servitude. It is also granted to them to take wives from their own kin, so that the bloodline [sanguinis proles] may increase and so that the bond of amity grow stronger among them. You yourself know very well that among them legal judgments regarding claims to property are the same as they are among the Hebrews, so that the plaintiff proves [his case] with witnesses and the defendant defends himself with an oath. Moreover, they accept only the most worthy and proven persons as witnesses, and those whom they can believe without an oath. In certain other respects, as well, they keep to the practice of the law of Moses, so that he who has shed the blood of a man is punished with the same punishment, and a man who has been caught in adultery is stoned along with the adulterous woman. Moreover, a man who has engaged in fornication with another woman will be subject to eighty lashes. Such a punishment as this is laid down for a thief: for the first and second offense he will endure eighty lashes, for the third he will lose a hand, for the fourth a foot, and one who has removed a limb from any man may redeem [it] with an appropriate price. All these precepts were set forth by God, lest, if any license for acting were too broad, ruin should quickly befall the entire people. They are commanded to abstain always from wine, since it is the kindling for, and the seedbed of, all sin. These are [only] the principal commandments of the law, since it would take too long to tarry over individual ones. And God promised to those believing in him and in Mohammad, his faithful prophet, and to those fulLlling the commandments of his law, a paradise, that is, a garden of delights, irrigated with Mowing waters, in which they will have thrones everlasting. The shade of trees will protect them, and they will not suffer from either cold or heat. They will eat from the kinds of every fruit and of every food. Whatever appetite suggests to any one, he will immediately set before him. They will be clothed with silk garments of all colors. They will recline in delights, and the angels will pass among them as table servants with gold and silver vessels,16 offering milk in the gold ones and wine in the silver, saying: “Eat and drink in complete joy, and, behold, what God promised you has been fulfilled.” They will be joined to virgins, whom neither human nor demonic contact has violated, more beautiful in form than the splendor of hyacinth and coral. These goods will be given to believers, whereas for those who do not believe in God and his prophet Mohammad there will be infernal punishment without end. Regardless of the number of sins by which every man is bound, yet on the day of his death if he shall believe in God and Mohammad, he will be saved on the day of judgment with Mohammad intervening for him. Since from childhood, no less, you have known that these things and many others, which would take too long to enumerate, were written and were held in the greatest veneration by the entire race of the Saracens, then why have you followed the Christian rather than the Muslim [Muzalemitica] religion? Will you better enjoy the felicity of the present life and equally enjoy that of the future life as well?

Petrus Alfsonsi, Dialogue Against the Jews, translated by Irven M. Resnick, (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2006), (146-50)

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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