Raymond Lull and the Challenge of Islam

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It is difficult for us to fully imagine how the rapid spread of Islam beginning in the seventh century affected the psyche of the average Christian in the Middle Ages.

Muhammad died in AD 632. Within four years Islamic armies had captured Damascus and Antioch. By 638 they had laid siege to Jerusalem and captured it in only four months, followed soon by the fall of Caesarea (640) and Alexandria (642). Islamic armies eventually crossed over into Europe and captured most of Spain and would have penetrated even deeper into Europe if they had not been stopped by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in AD 732.

However, Islam continued to spread into North and East Africa and deep into Asia. Within a few centuries, the Islamic Empire stretched from Spain in the West, across North Africa, the Middle East, and portions of central Asia. Although the Byzantine Empire did not officially fall until 1453 when the Muslims sacked Constantinople, the threat of Islam was an ongoing source of anxiety and speculation throughout the entire Middle Ages.

The Christian response to the rise of Islam is mostly remembered as a series of military campaigns launched by Western Christendom against Islam known as the Crusades. The seven campaigns, or Crusades, took place between 1095 and 1250. The reasons for the Crusades were complex and intertwined, ranging from a desire to safeguard pilgrims to the Holy Land, to the search for new sources of wealth, to the need to strengthen the waning power of the papacy. However, the central long-term objective was to defeat the Islamic armies and to retake the Holy Land, thus reclaiming lost territories for Christendom. From both a military and a spiritual perspective, the Crusades were a total failure. Indeed, the memory of the Crusades continues to inform Islamic attitudes about Christianity even to the present day.

It is important to realize, however, that the Crusades are not the only story of the Christian response to Islam during the Middle Ages. The fourth historical focus highlights the life and ministry of Raymond Lull (1232–1315), known as the “Father of Islamic Apologetics.” Lull was born at one of the most remarkable and tumultuous times in history. During his lifetime, Spain was being liberated from Islamic domination. Within the first few decades of his life, he would live to see the rise of the Ottoman Turks, the dismal failure of the seventh crusade, and the founding of the first college of Oxford University.

Lull, by his own account, was a licentious young man and, even after marriage, engaged in several adulterous relationships. He was a well-known poet and skilled musician in the Christian court of Aragon, where he grew up. However, after a dramatic vision of Christ, Lull was powerfully converted in his early thirties and became a dedicated follower of Christ. He was deeply disturbed by the hateful and militaristic attitude of Christians toward Muslims that was prevalent in his day. He was dismayed to realize that no Christian writer was responding to the philosophical challenges that had been posed by the famous Islamic philosophers of his time. Lull decided to dedicate his life to finding a way to effectively communicate the gospel to Muslims.

With nearly three hundred published works, Lull’s writings are vast, covering political theory, poetry, mathematics, science, philosophy, and theology. Early on in his writings, Lull recognized the need to develop a Christian apologetic that specifically and directly responded to Islamic misunderstandings and objections to Christianity. Lull spent nine years learning Arabic and carefully studying Islamic philosophy and theology. Eventually he developed a multivolume, Trinitarian apologetic, known as Ars Generalis ultima (the Ultimate General Art), which answered Islamic objections to Christianity and advocated a method for talking to Muslims, sometimes known as the Lullian method. Lull was convinced that the military confrontation represented by the Crusades was a mistake. Rather, he believed that Muslims should be addressed in love, not hate, and by the force of logic, not the instruments of war.

Lull also recognized the need to train and mobilize an entire new movement of monks who would go into the Muslim world as missionaries. Lull called on the pope and the princes of Christendom to establish monasteries for the study of Arabic and other languages spoken by Islamic peoples in order to train them in his “method” and send them out to turn the Islamic world to Christ. Lull wrote:

I see many knights going to the Holy Land in the expectation of conquering it by force or arms; but instead of accomplishing this object, they are in the end all swept away themselves. Therefore, it is my belief that the conquest of the Holy Land should be attempted in no other way than as Christ and his apostles undertook to accomplish it; by love, by prayer, by tears, and by the offering up of our own lives. It seems that the possession of the Holy Sepulchre can be better secured by the force of preaching than by the force of arms, therefore let monks march forth as holy knights . . . and proclaim to the infidels the truth of his passion.

Lull eventually secured the support for this plan from Pope John XXI.

Lull insisted that everyone trained in his method be willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel. Given the ongoing conflicts with Islam in his day, this was a sober realization by Lull of the inherent dangers in any Islamic mission. Lull made at least four missionary journeys to Islamic North Africa. He was able to present his apologetic defense of Christianity to Muslim leaders. However, he also suffered expulsions, abuse, and long imprisonments. Finally, when he was in his eighties, he preached to a gathering of Muslims in Algiers and was stoned to death.

Lull was really ahead of his time, recognizing the ill effects of military responses to Islam and the positive benefits of answering questions that they have. He also understood that if we are to make headway with Muslims, we must be willing to suffer. Lull’s ministry and scholarship have given him many titles, including Doctor Illuminatus, father of Islamic apologetics and father of Islamic missions. However, perhaps his most important and enduring title is the Apostle of Love in an age of hate.

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