Once I came across a YouTube video, representing a selection of engravings by Gustave Dore on King Arthur’s legends on the background of the overture from Wagner’s “Parsifal” — nice artistic work, I really liked it. What grabbed my attention were the comments below: “And now, all this great European culture is been destroyed by Muslims”, declared one; the other wished to explode the local mosque with it, and so on.

It is not a secret that there is certain anti-Islamic, “modern crusade” discourse, and there are people who draw their inspiration from European traditional culture in such a way in general, and from the idea of knighthood in particular. Even though today we have a large number of works written about deep connections between Islam and European Medieval culture, mostly by non-Muslim scholars, we should moreover have something to say on this subject. Not even as a response to those ignorant discourses, as much as in order to find our own inspiration in this whole phenomenon. Being a Muslim and a European at the same time provides a person with a unique prospective on his own culture and history.

Some people, on the other hand, consider knighthood (futuwwa) as something that had been transferred to Europe through Muslims and see it as an Arabs’ contribution to European culture. “Europe did not know chivalry, or its adopted literature or sense of honour before the arrival of Arabs in Andalusia and the wide presence of their knights and heroes in the countries of the south.1— wrote Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, who also said: “Chivalry had not been known to the Greeks and Romans”. Some Muslims similarly state that traditions of futuwwa came out of Islam itself.

It is important here to defer between religion and culture.

Futuwwa is a quintessence of man’s fitrah, in a broader sense — Imago Dei, divine plan, an honor bestowed by God on a human being, unlike the rest of Creation. This image, being an essence of fitrah, can reveal itself without direct contact with the Revelation. Noble behavior, sense of honor, spirit of valor and generosity were a very important parts of an ancient world like pre-Islamic chivalric culture that was reflected in jahili Arab poetry, as well as Greek, Roman and Scandinavian epic traditions that prove that importance. Whoever read Homer, Scandinavian sagas or Roman historians can find there numerous examples. However, these high standards of conduct, though highly developed, they were not directed to the only purpose of absolute worth.

So here we come to futuwwa as an important part of the Islamic tradition, which caused a major impact on European Medieval culture.

Christianity had rather adopted and tried to reconcile all these influences with the Church doctrine in the era of Crusades, however by the time it tended to get rid of them. In fact, the antagonism of the first two classes (clergy and nobility) builds the whole drama of European history for many centuries. The destruction of the Templars, who with the time became close to Islam in their secret doctrine, had put the end to centuries-old cultural, religious, mystical and symbolic influence of Islam on Europe. In the conflict of clergy and nobility, the first class takes over the second, and the nobility of the sword, which had experienced a strong influence of Islamic knightly orders, since then gradually falls into decay.

There were many discussions among historians on global turn in the history of western civilization as a transition from feudal-chivalrous structures and way of life to the era of great geographical discoveries, progress and technocracy. Among the main reasons, they mention the Black Plague, the Hundred Years’ War, anti-humanism of the medieval value system and so on. But deepest and the most precise observation seems to be what an American medievalist J. Wallock described as “a clash of contrasting models of Western chivalry”. It is important to recognize the existence of completely different, sometimes poorly compatible archetypes that prevailed in the Western medieval chivalric culture.

The ideals of antiquity, natural for a European character, which we find in almost every epic medieval hero, experienced a serious outer challenge. We see a hero, suddenly striving for a different outcome, instead of the fatal heroic drama of the past. The whole Holy Grail quest is nothing else but a search for a different plot, a story of salvation from the fatal abyss, by which a hero was previously doomed to be defeated. Christianity, with its magic symbolism, on the contrary, tried to heal those wounds, building its own frame story over this plot. With time, the roots were forgotten, though still found in literature, at the level of artistic truth, that the original archetype of the sublime kshatrism and the divine vassalage (khilafa) was preserved in Islamic-Saracen world and could only be peculiarly inculcated by Christian European culture. When, however, the connections with the source of inspiration were lost Western civilization returned to titanism, having abolished Christianity as well.

The concept of prozdom or preudomme (old French terms, which origins, western scholars can’t say anything certain about) emerges in European literature approximately in the late eleventh early twelveth century. “The composite prozdom of the late eleventh century was therefore a man of mature sense and wisdom, an experienced and effective soldier, and a valued supporter of his prince. To be called a prozdom was to receive the respect and deference of your fellows at court and on the field of battle”2. This aristocratic conduct was to be taught to a young, with the time became a name itself for a young man of a noble origin that must possess those characteristics.

D. Crouch makes an interesting observation: “Strangely, it seems to have been contact with noble warriors who were not Christian which helped in part to solidify in medieval minds the qualities of a noble man. It was as if knowing that there were admirable emirs forced Christian noblemen to think what it was that they admired in each other, and how they defined virtue. So around 1190 the crusading writer of the Song of Aspremont described the noble Saracen knight Gorhan:

It is no wonder that he was a proud man, for he was wealthy and the possessor of great honors. He was proz, tough and a very skilled horseman  (chivalrous). He could play a good game of chess or backgammon. He was knowledgable about hawks, falcons and their use in the fens. No huntsman knew more than he did about woodcraft. In deciding court cases he was wise and insightful. To the proud he was indomitable and remorseless, but he behaved with humility and consideration to lesser folk. He was not greedy for possessions and was generous to important and humble people alike. In body he was well proportioned and an object of admiration.”

Another particularly interesting example is found in the old French poem, the “Ordination of Knighthood” (L’Ordene de Chevalerie) by unknown author, dating back to the 13th century. It depicts an interesting and vivid image of Saladin, which later became an archetypal image for many subsequent Western authors (for example, Sir Walter Scott in his novel “Talisman”).

In the poem Saladin asks his captive, Hugh de Tabari, Prince of Galilee (real historical figure) to acquaint him with the Christian tradition of knighthood initiation. His interest is due to the personality of Hugh himself, in whom Saladin sees the qualities of prozdom. Hugh at first refuses under the reason that the King of Saracens is not a Christian, but Saladin, eager to know about his knighthood, reminds him that he is in captivity. So eventually, Hugh has to reveal the secrets of his Order to the “pagan king”.

One of the interesting details of the initiation — the full ablution, the ritual clothes, which is specially had to be worn, each piece of which has its symbolic color. Simultaneously, highly hoping for “da’wah”, Hugh describes to Saladin by drawing some totally non-Christian pictures of Paradise, with the image of the bed and all the pleasures, that the Lord has prepared for “his friends” (direct reference to the “auliya” of Allah):

We then must render everyone
To God that we may win the prize
Of all delights of Paradise.
Because no tongue may tell the tale,
Ear hearken, nor a heart avail
To think of Paradise the fair,
And what his friends God giveth there.”3

This delightful picture seems to be missing only the Paradise maidens to become pure Qur’anic reflection. And here comes the feeling of complete mirroring, and many of parallels are evoked. I’d like to remember the words of J. Evola, who wrote in his “Metaphysics of War”:

In this way and despite everything, the Crusades were able to enrich the cultural exchange between the Ghibelline West and the Arabic East (itself the center of more ancient traditional elements), an exchange whose significance is much greater than most historians have yet recognized. As the knights of the crusading orders found themselves in the presence of knights of Arab orders which were almost their doubles, manifesting correspondences in ethics, customs, and sometimes even symbols, so the

sacred war’ which had impelled the two civilizations against each other in the name of their respective religions, led them at the same time to meet, that is to say, to realize that, despite having as starting points two different faiths, they had eventually accorded to war the identical, independent value of spirituality”.

By the end of the poem, Hugh tells Saladin that only the accolade is left (a symbolic blow with the sword on the shoulder of the initiate), but he cannot demonstrate it. “Because I am your captive, Sire, and this is not proper” (meaning, that it only befits a person of a higher rank). As a sign of his gratitude, Saladin invites a Christian knight to join the festival, where he places him by his side. Then, bound Saladin’s own words given in the beginning of the poem, that the captive can redeem himself only for one hundred thousand bezants, gives Hugh fifty thousands of his own means, while his “barons” add the rest, and thus allows the captive to symbolically redeem himself. Eventually, Hugh returns to his kingdom.

A warrior feels much more in common with an other warrior, even an enemy, than with his countrymen, as both are fighting for their ideals and equally risking their lives. It seems to be very truthlike that Christian knights not only considered their own knighthood as the source of courage and prowess, but also recognized that Saracen knights also possessed this sort of talisman.

Though, Christianity and general ignorance in the West over Islam prevented for medieval authors to rethink the fact that true and divine source of inspiration for Saracen knights’ martial and moral ethics was the Islam itself.

By Daria Rusanova

1 Habeeb Salloum, Saladin Chivalry and the Crusades, , Washington DC (2005).

2 David Crouch, The Birth of Nobility Constructing Aristocracy in England and France 900–1300

3 The Ordination of Knighthood”, translation by William Morris, 1893

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