Charlemagne’s ‘Jihad’

Charlemagne inflicting baptism on defeated Saxons (from Project Gutenberg)
I have before me the current issue of Viator, and I confess that it has annoyed me. Not just because of the frequent typoes, which this volume’s articles seem particularly stricken by, though those do betray a need for what an acquaintance of mine termed ‘better-quality pedantry’ among both writers and copy-editors. No, the particular thing that’s got to me is Yitzhak Hen’s article, which is entitled simply “Charlemagne’s Jihad”.1 After discussing it with my housemate, between myself and whom the Cambridge University Library’s copy of this volume has probably spent more time here than in the UL, I’ve pinned down several things I object to about it and thought they could go here for the time being. (Hyperlinks to texts or references throughout, mostly from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook; I know it’s not exactly translation at the cutting edge but it’s easy to use and will do to illustrate).

The article is mainly a well-supported and well-argued reassessment of Charlemagne’s policies in the conquest of the Saxons, and it contends that the forced conversion measures envisaged in the Capitulare de Partibus Saxoniae were in fact no more than a short-lived aberration of policy against a background of aggressive but non-coercive mission work. I have no problem with this, or with the redating of the Capitulare to c. 792 that it entails; that all seems to me fairly plausible, and I like both the reasoning and the use of evidence to support it.

The problems start when Dr Hen offers a source for the aberration in the form of the influence of Theodulf of Orléans on its drafting. That’s not implausible, but he blames Theodulf for the forced conversion ethic on the grounds of his familiarity with Muslim Spain, where he was after all born and raised, and therefore with the ethic of jihad. He cites numerous works of Middle Eastern scholarship on the theory of jihad in Islam, and also draws textual parallels between the Capitulare and the so-called ‘Covenant of ‘Umar’, a document purporting to come from c. 640 which regulated in a newly fundamentalist way the rights of Christians and Jews living under a Muslim government, including things like distinctive clothing, that churches higher than mosques were to be demolished, that there were to be no repairs to religious buildings and no new ones built and so on. Hen also cites Islamic jurisprudence as support on all this, while admitting in a footnote that it’s exceedingly unlikely that that kind of work had yet made it to the West (p. 46 & n. 83). The only actual primary source cited in this section is a piece of the work of a little-known Baghdadi historian, Ibn Habib, that uses the actual term “jihad” only of the 711 invasion, and that from a man who was probably writing in the 840s of a hundred and thirty years earlier and a few hundred miles west. Other work apparently unknown to Hen has stressed by contrast that actually, the jihad ethic really isn’t testified to in Spain until the arrival of the Almoravids.2

Another thing that Hen doesn’t seem to know, or at least admit, is that the era of the floruit of Ibn Habib is actually a good time to be seeing such rhetoric in the Middle East, because since 847 the ruler in Baghdad had been Caliph al-Mutawakkil, who was much hotter on this kind of discrimination than his predecessors. And Hen certainly doesn’t admit that that’s the point at which the ‘Covenant of ‘Umar’ is first evidenced in text, though he does admit (p. 46) that we have no idea when it really comes from, whilst also expressing a belief that its provisions must have been plain knowledge to all in both East and West and, apparently, that Theodulf could parallel its provisions in ‘his’ capitulary (pp. 48-9). A study from more than a decade ago tried to link this text and the contemporary Baghdad persecution to the martyrs of Córdoba and concluded that there was no real way it could have been known or influential then, and those episodes were a full fifty years after this capitulary’s latest possible date.3 Next, I myself don’t find the fact that the legislation involves a ten per cent annual render from those converted a convincing parallel with the Muslim jizya or poll tax for two reasons: firstly, though Hen contends otherwise, the jizya was usually an eleventh,4 and secondly, the idea of a one-tenth render on those who profess Christianity payable to the Church is not that radical in Carolingian Francia, or indeed anywhere since, where it is usually called tithe.

Supposing Theodulf nonetheless to be au fait with the prescriptions of the Suria on the ‘people of the book’, Hen says that the adoption of forced conversion of the Saxons represents a brief patch when Theodulf had effective control of religious policy and that it was cancelled pretty much as soon as Alcuin could write to the Emperor and let him know it had difficult theological implications (p. 50).

Now, I have no particular affection for Theodulf, who does not come across in his writings as a pleasant man, but this theory involves supposing firstly that he had lived under a régime of forced conversion in Spain, for which there is no evidence; secondly that he knew the texts behind this, which would involve at least parts of the Qu’ran, which no-one has ever spotted and which would be very unusual in a Christian Andalusi teenager,5 and allegedly the ‘Covenant of ‘Umar’, which is pretty much disproved by Lapiedra’s article cited below; that he further approved of the methods that the Muslims were using on his Spanish coreligionists (except that they weren’t); and that no-one else at court thought there was a problem with imitating the Muslims either.

In fact there are far closer parallels for forced conversion policies, all directed at the Jews of course. Hen mentions the policies of King Sisebut of the Visigoths but assures us that they were deprecated by Isidore of Seville, whom he poses as Theodulf’s first port of call for guidance (p. 47: “Theodulf knew all that.”) He completely fails to mention however the subsequent Visigothic anti-Jewish legislation (although he references work on it (p. 47 n. 88), which could be called misrepresenting his sources), or Byzantine policies of the same sort under Heraclius which, Tom Kitchen kindly informs me, were to an extent also briefly promulgated by King Dagobert in Francia under Byzantine influence. One doesn’t need Theodulf to explain the use of those precedents however…

So there isn’t really any evidence offered to support Hen’s theory at all, possibly because there is none to offer. Nonetheless, he winds up saying as follows: “one should not ask whether Theodulf could have known the Muslim notion of jihad or the dhimmi restrictions prescribed by the Pact of ‘Umar. After all, he grew up in a place where these restrictions were commonly known and perhaps implemented.” He has of course not proved any of this. He goes on: “… we must assume that he had a fair amount of knowledge about the Muslims of al-Andalus, their religion and their civilisation. Those who argue otherwise will need to prove their point, and not vice versa.”

Now this is not how we do peer-reviewed history, I thought; I have penalised students for making up theories for which there’s no evidence and I’m sure Dr Hen must have also. However, since the rest of the article is good I understand how this has got into print. All the same, until he can show:

  • any evidence elsewhere of Theodulf knowing and using any Muslim text, even the Qu’ran
  • knowledge of the Covenant of ‘Umar in al-Andalus at a time when Theodulf could have heard of this, even from afar
  • any general currency of ideas of jihad in al-Andalus in Theodulf’s or indeed Charlemagne’s time
  • any good reason to favour this derivation of the Capitulare‘s provisions over the far closer ones from Visigothic and even Frankish legislation

… I think Dr Hen may have to wait a while for the theory to be considered so serious that it needs refuting…

1. Y. Hen, “Charlemagne’s Jihad” in Viator: medieval and Renaissance studies Vol. 37 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 33-51.

2. E. Manzano Moreno, “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe, edited by D. Agius & R. Hitchcock (Reading IL 1994), pp. 83-96.

3. E. Lapiedra Gutiérrez, “Los martíres de Córdoba y la política anticristiana contemporánea en Oriente” in al-Qantara: revista de estudios árabes Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 453-463 with Spanish résumé p. 453 and English abstract p. 463.

4. For full discussion of what a frontier city like Theodulf’s Zaragoza might have paid by way of taxes, see E. Manzano Moreno, La Frontera de al-Andalus en Época de los Omeyas, Bibliotheca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991), pp. 304-310, focussing on mostly-Christian Toledo.

5. Andalusi Christian knowledge of the Qu’ran is discussed by N. Daniel, “Spanish Christian sources of information about Islam (ninth to thirteenth centuries)” in al-Qantara 15 (1994), pp. 365-84. Hen reports having consulted Ann Christys, but does not cite her book Christians in al-Andalus 711-1000 (Abingdon 2002); it is worth the inspection for those interested in questions like this.

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8 responses to “Charlemagne’s ‘Jihad’

  1. très intéressant…
    pourrais-je vous demander si le livre
    Cordoba. an arab city in medieval europe
    de lawrence-agius est sorti… je ne le trouve pas!
    merci d’avance. hélène condylis-bassoukos, je suis grecque qui enseigne civilisation arabe à l’université d’athènes.

  2. Bonjour Hélène, et merci de vos mots gentils. Je n’ai pas su de ce livre, et je ne peux non plus trouver qu’il est sorti. Google en donne des citations par des contributeurs d’une édition de Manchester University Press de 1996, 1998 (en premsa) et 2001 (in press), mais le site de la Presse ne le mentionne pas. vous l’offrira pour un prix réduit… mais n’en a aucunes copies livrables, et ils citent l’édition comme “Ithaca” – soit peut-être Cornell University Press, qui ne le mentionne non plus. S’il ait vraiment tardi depuis 1996, ça serait un cas extrême! mais pas sans pareil hélas… Je regrette de n’avoir aucuns renseignements ‘du dedans’.

  3. c’est vraiment très gentil de répondre si vite! merci infiniment!
    à votre disposition pour quelque chose en grec…

  4. Pingback: Charlemagne's Saxon "Jihad" - World War II Forums


  6. very interesting

    for anyone looking for the article, it’s available online now:

    great blog btw :)

  7. sorry to weigh in so late. are you aware of this work?
    Khalid Yahya Blankinship, The End of the Jihâd State: The Reign of Hishām Ibn ʻAbd Al-Malik (SUNY Press, 1994), who argues that the entire Umayyad enterprise of expansion (including Spain) was a campaign of (lesser) Jihad.

    • That one is news to me, thankyou. I shall have to ask around for opinions, although of course it would only alter one of my several reasons for finding this theory improbable.

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