Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture

Research Article

The Earliest Spanish Christian Views of Islam

Kenneth Baxter Wolfa1

a1 Assistant professor of history in Pomona College, Claremont, California.

Twenty-five years ago, in the first of three now well-known lectures, R. W. Southern noted the “extremely slow penetration of Islam as an intellectually identifiable fact in Western minds.” Southern attributed this delay to the distance that separated Latin Christians from the Muslims. In the case of the northern Europeans, this distance was physical. After Poitiers, the military threat posed by Islam receded and assumed its place as only one among many peripheral challenges to the authority of the Carolingians and their successors. For the Christians of Spain, who lived within the boundaries of Islam, the distance was psychological. Out of their fear of cultural absorption, they closed their minds to the new religion and reacted with hostility against it. As a result, according to Southern, the first generations of Latin ecclesiastics who were in a position to assess Islam either did not bother to comprehend it or did so using only the most distorted information available, depending on which side of the Pyrenees they lived on.