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The Monk and the Caliph


Angus Macnab

Source: Tomorrow, Vol. 14, No. 2. (Spring, 1966), later continued as
Studies in Comparative Religion, © World Wisdom, Inc.

One of the greatest of the Caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty in medieval Spain was ‘Abd ar-Rahmân III, and many Christian kings sent ambassadors to his court. His patient and insightful handling of a particularly obstinate ambassador provides a case history that might profitably be studied by any budding diplomat set on attaining a higher than average competence in his profession. The date is 957, when yet another embassy was sent to ‘Abd ar-Rahmân III, this time by Otto the Great, King of Germany and later Emperor. The central point of the story is really the same as that of the old puzzle: “What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?” Clearly there is no answer; the only hope is to stop them from meeting, and that is what caused the Caliph to take much trouble, for although in its own sphere his power was irresistible, the will of the monk concerned was no less immovable.

The deadlock came about thus. For reasons which are not known, ‘Abd ar-Rahmân had sent an embassy some years before to the “great chief of Alemanya.” The letter he sent contained the usual phrases about the greatness of the Western Caliphate, but they went too far, and contained some expressions intolerable to Christian ears. As ‘Abd ar-Rahmân was neither a fool nor a fanatic, it is likely that the objectionable passages were due to the blunder of a Court official, but they enraged King Otto, who detained the ambassadors for three years, while steadily refusing to enter into further relations with them.

However, something had to be done, and so Otto determined to send a counter-embassy, not so much to deal with political affairs as to retort in kind to the passages in which the Caliph’s letter were deemed to be offensive to the Christian religion. The letter was composed by Otto’s brother, St. Bruno the Great, Archbishop of Cologne, in the same language as that of the Caliph’s letter, namely Greek, regarded as the intermediary language between Arabic and Latin. As the letter was couched in strong terms, a stout-hearted messenger was required to bear it, a man not afraid to face the potential anger of the Caliph.

A monk named John from the Benedictine Abbey of Gorze (or Görtz) in Alsace-Lorraine volunteered for the mission, fully prepared to sacrifice his life if need be (Johannes sese offert spe martyrii); he later became abbot of the monastery and is canonized as St. John of Gorze. With him, as companion, went a disciple named Garamannus (Hermann), who wrote an account of the whole mission. Gorze Abbey itself provided rich gifts for the monk to take to the Caliph.

The two monks traveled on foot as far as Vienne, where they took shipping down the Rhône and thence across by sea to Barcelona. The first Moslem city they came to was Tortosa, where the governor treated them with great consideration and assisted them to make the rest of their journey to Córdoba.

On arrival there, they were lodged in a house two miles from the royal palace, and treated with regal generosity, but were not invited to present their letters of credence. Their state was in fact one of luxurious imprisonment. When they asked the reason for the delay, they were told that since the Córdoban ambassadors had been detained for three years in Germany, they would be detained for nine years in Córdoba. In fact, however, the Caliph was merely stalling for time in order to decide what to do. He had really got himself into an impossible position, for he had a very fair idea of what was in the letters, and so, unfortunately, had some of his subjects. Now, if he received the ambassadors and let them read their letters, he would be legally bound to put them to death for blasphemy against Islam and Mohammed; the law allowed of no exception. Yet to kill a guest, even if he be your worst enemy—not to speak of an ambassador—is an unspeakable crime in Moslem eyes. On the other hand, if he listened to the letters without retaliation, he would be committing a capital crime himself, for Islamic law said that anyone who tolerated blasphemy against the Prophet was just as guilty as the actual blasphemer. If this applied to all Moslems, however humble, what of the Caliph himself, the Commander of the Faithful? Thus it looked as if ‘Abd ar-Rahmân would have to order either his own head, or the two ambassadors’—or possibly all three—to be cut off! Further awful consequences might include a popular upsurge against the Christians, and even a war with the German empire. When it was put about in Córdoba that the Caliph was thinking of receiving the monks, there were protestations, and an appeasing official statement had to be issued by the Palace.

After much thought, the Caliph commissioned a leading Jew, as a neutral third party, to try and persuade the monks to visit the Palace but without presenting their documents. John refused, and the two monks were left in solitude for some months more. The next visitor they had was the Mozarabic bishop of the Christians in Córdoba. As the Mozarabic bishop and the German monk could talk freely in Latin, we possess an account of the conversation, which throws an interesting light on the state of the Church under Moslem overlordship at that time. The two clerics first spoke of all manner of things, but finally the bishop revealed the real reason for his visit, namely ‘Abd ar-Rahmân’s desire to receive the embassy with its presents only.

“And what shall I do with the letters?” asked John. “Have I not been sent especially to deliver them? He was the first to utter blasphemies, and all we do is to refute them.”

The text is not complete, but we can read a great part of the bishop’s reply:

“You do not know the conditions under which we live. The Apostle forbids us to resist the powers of the world. . . . It is a great consolation to us . . . to live according to our own laws. . . . The most fervent observers of the Christian precepts are regarded most highly, whereas the Jews [who did not recognize the Messiah] are looked down on by both communities. Our situation demands from us the conduct we follow, and we do nothing contrary to our religion. In other respects we behave obediently, and that is why I think it would be better to suppress that letter, which may needlessly arouse passions against you and us.”

John hesitated for a moment, but speedily rallied, and refused to give way:

“How can you use such language, you who purport to be a bishop? Are you not a confessor of the faith, and have you not been raised to the post you hold in order to defend it?. . . Yet for human considerations you depart from the truth, and far from urging the rest to proclaim it, you yourself evade your duty. Better would it have been, and more proper for a truly Christian man, to suffer all the straits of misery, rather than to accept from the enemy a nourishment prejudicial to the salvation of others.”

John then criticized a number of the practices of the Mozarabic church. “How can you possibly live such a life? I have heard that you submit to what the Catholic Church regards as odious: I have been told that your people circumcise themselves despite the command of the Apostle, and abstain from certain foods, merely because their doctors forbid them.”

“Custom and necessity constrain us,” replied the Bishop, “otherwise we could not live among our conquerors, and besides, all that we do was already done by our forefathers, and their usage has taught us to do the same.”

“Never,” said John, “can I approve the doing of anything other than what is commanded, whether from love or from fear.” And he added that nothing in the world would make him waver in his resolution. When this was reported to the Caliph, who was a man well skilled in working on the human heart, he let some time pass before trying to do anything else.

Six or seven weeks later, when further messengers from the Caliph had met with no better success, and it was clear that personal threats would be of no avail, it was hinted to John that his attitude might bring down a general persecution on the Christians. Garamannus relates the affair as follows:

“On the Lord’s day and on certain of the principal feasts of our religion, such as Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, the Ascension, Whitsun, St. John’s and some others, the Christians were allowed to repair to a church outside the city dedicated to St. Martin,” and undoubtedly they must have done so in procession, for he states that they were afterwards accompanied by twelve guards, whom he calls sagiones, from the church back to the city. John had obtained leave to go with them, and on the way a messenger handed him a letter—remarkable for its size, for it was written on a square sheepskin—making the threats mentioned above. However, not even this made the monk deviate from his purpose.

Finally, the Mozarabic Christians themselves approached him to try to find a solution. John then suggested the only possible one, namely to send a messenger to King Otto with full information, and to ask for further instructions. The Caliph agreed, but as he could not find anyone ready to undertake such a long and hazardous journey, he published an edict offering a special boon to anyone who would volunteer to go, and all manner of rewards on his return.

In the palace secretariat was a Christian official called Recemundus (Raimundo), who was renowned for his perfect knowledge of Arabic and Latin. He was duly attracted by the possibility of preferment, but before volunteering, he applied for leave to visit the ambassador in order to find out what manner of man Otto was, and whether, if he went, he was likely to be imprisoned himself in revenge for the detention of Otto’s ambassador in Córdoba. John assured him that he need have no apprehension on these points, and gave him letters of recommendation to Gorze Abbey. Raimundo returned to the palace prepared to undertake the embassy, but requested that he be presented to the bishopric of Iliberis, which was then vacant. The Mozarabic authorities agreed and Raimundo was consecrated bishop. He was provided with the necessary instructions, and set out on his journey. In ten weeks he arrived at Gorze, where he was well received. It was then August, and the Bishop of Metz kept him there during the autumn and winter, and then accompanied him to the Emperor’s court at Frankfurt. Otto was probably glad enough to call the whole thing off, and agreed to all that was suggested; a new letter was composed, and Raimundo was back at Gorze by Easter, and at Córdoba by June 959, accompanied by the new ambassador, Dudo. The new letter authorized John not to present the former one, but instead to negotiate a treaty of friendship and peace, to put an end to the incursions of Arab pirates and filibusters who were causing a great deal of trouble in imperial territories, including southern France, Lombardy, and even Switzerland. These were simply bands of adventurers who had got across into Provence from Catalonia, and the Córdoba emirate had never given them any protection or encouragement.

The new ambassadors presented themselves at the palace, but ‘Abd ar-Rahmân said: “No, by my life; let the former ambassadors come first; no-one shall see my face before that courageous monk who has defied my will for so long!” But even now, there were still difficulties. When the viziers arrived at the monk’s house to conduct him to the palace, they found him with his hair and beard uncombed and in the penitential monastic robe. This would not do, the officials said, and the Caliph sent him a gift of ten pounds of silver to buy a court dress. John returned thanks, but gave the money to the poor. “I do not scorn the gift of kings,” he said, “but I cannot wear any other dress than the habit of my order.” When the Caliph heard this, he exclaimed: “Let him come anyhow he likes, even clad in a sack; I shall not receive him the less well for that!”

So at last the interview took place. The monks were led to the palace with immense splendor through streets lined with troops in gala uniform, and preceded along the road by dancing dervishes. “It was the summer solstice,” writes Garamannus, “and from the city to the palace these Moors never ceased to raise a fearful dust.” He was of course unaware of the true nature of the sacred dance of the dervishes (the Persian word darvish being the equivalent of the Arabic word faqîr, meaning “poor man,” in the same sense as the “holy poverty” of the Franciscans), and of the high honor being rendered thus by the representatives of one religion to those of another.

The chief dignitaries of the Caliphate came out to meet the Christian ambassador, then led him through dazzling saloons into the presence of the Caliph, who now, almost at the end of his reign of half a century, appeared very seldom in public, and “like a god” (quasi numen quoddam) hid himself from the eyes of his subjects. Amid surroundings of untold riches, the Caliph sat cross-legged upon a couch; he gave John the palm of his hand to kiss, an honor which Moslem princes reserved only for the greatest of lords. As a Christian, the monk was given an armchair to sit in (Moslems generally sitting on the carpeted floor), and after a prolonged silence ‘Abd ar-Rahmân began to speak of the reasons which had obliged him to delay this interview for so long. John replied, and a conversation ensued, in which the Caliph proved so courteous and amiable that he won John’s heart despite the natural prejudice with which the monk had approached him. The presents were offered and accepted, and the monk asked leave to return to his own country; but ‘Abd ar-Rahmân would not permit him to do so until he had seen John several times more and got to know him better.

In the growing acquaintanceship John developed a deep affection for the Caliph, and he returned from the palace to his sumptuous lodging convinced that the Arabs “did not deserve the name of barbarians that they were constantly given in Europe.” At subsequent interviews, now on more familiar terms, they discussed questions of state. The Caliph inquired minutely concerning the power, wealth, and military affairs of Otto; he debated many points with John, who would not allow that anyone was Otto’s superior in arms and horses. In this, ‘Abd ar-Rahmân praised his staunchness, but criticized Otto’s conduct in leaving unpunished the rebellion of his son and son-in-law, who had not hesitated to call in the Hungarians to ravage the empire they sought to usurp.

As to the rest, and the agreements, if any, that were concluded between the two empires, we are not told, for the chronicle of Garamannus ends at this point; but one thing is certain: before the “immovable object,” St. John of Gorze, returned home, he had conceived as great a respect and admiration for ‘Abd ar-Rahmân, as ‘Abd ar-Rahmân, the “irresistible force,” already had for him.

During the last two years of his life, ‘Abd ar-Rahmân almost entirely delegated the administration of his realm to his son Al-Hakam. He appointed no chief minister since the death of Mundhir ibn Sa‘îd, the “unknown young man” who was at the Byzantine ambassadors’ reception in 949. He seldom left his retreat in the Orange-blossom palace, where he solaced himself with the company of his women, children, and poets. The Arab chronicle mentions some of the women in whose conversation he delighted: Muzna, who sang her own verses, and acted as his secretary; ‘Â’isha, a Córdoban maiden whom Ibn Hayyân calls the most chaste, beautiful, and learned woman of her age; Safîya, also a beautiful and learned poetess; and finally the slave-woman Noiratedia, whose ready wit and amusing sallies delighted him. He also conversed daily with his old friend Sulaimân ibn ‘Abd al-Ghâfir, a nobleman who had been a great soldier, and now lived a retired life of asceticism. Knowing his charitable spirit, the Caliph had chosen him as an agent for good works, and through him conveyed assistance privately to a large number of families.

Shortly before his death, the chronicler Al-Makkârî relates, he wrote the following confession, which was found among his papers: “I have reigned fifty years, and my realm has always either been at peace or victorious. Beloved by my subjects, feared by my enemies, respected by my allies the greatest princes on earth, I had all I could desire: honors and wealth, pleasures and power. No earthly good was wanting to me; yet on scrupulously reckoning up the days on which I have tasted felicity without bitterness, I have found only fourteen in my long life.” In this state of mind, says Al-Makkârî, ‘Izrâ‘îl, the Angel of Death, translated him from his alcázar at Madînat az-Zahrâ (“the Orange-blossom palace”) to the eternal mansions of the beyond on the night of Wednesday 2nd Ramadân 350 A.H. (15th November 961 A.D.) at the age of seventy-two. Two days later his body was borne to Córdoba amid vast crowds who lamented: “Dead is our father, gone is his sword, the sword of Islam: the succor of the weak and needy, and the terror of the proud.”