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Medieval Exegesis and Religious DifferenceCommentary, Conflict, and Community in the Premodern Mediterranean$

Ryan Szpiech

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780823264629

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: January 2016

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823264629.001.0001

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The Anti-Muslim Discourse of Alfonso Buenhombre

The Anti-Muslim Discourse of Alfonso Buenhombre

(p.87) 5 The Anti-Muslim Discourse of Alfonso Buenhombre
Medieval Exegesis and Religious Difference

Antoni Biosca i Bas

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This essay studies the anti-Muslim discourse of Alfonso Buenhombre, a fourteenth-century Dominican, who was the author of two anti-Jewish texts, including the Epistola Rabbi Samuelis (Epistle of Rabbi Samuel), which would end up being among the most widely copied and printed anti-Jewish polemics of the later Middle Ages. Numerous copies of this text, which takes the form of letters between two rabbis discussing Christian belief, contain a final chapter dedicated to Islam. Material for this final chapter in the Epistola was drawn from Buenhombre’s later work, the Disputatio Abutalib (Dispute of Abu Talib), which similarly comprises letters between a Muslim and a Jew. Buenhombre falsely claimed to have translated the texts from Arabic and passed off as Muslim certain ideas about Islam drawn from Ramon Martí, Nicholas of Lyra, and other Christian writers. This analysis points to the importance among medieval Dominican exegetes of the appeal to “authentic” Jewish and Muslim sources, even to the extent of creating fictional characters and texts to offer “testimony” in support of Christian interpretations.

Keywords:   Alfonso Buenhombre (Alphonsus Bonihomnis), Christian Anti-Muslim Polemic, Christian Anti-Jewish Polemic, Dominicans, fourteenth century

The year 1339 is the earliest date associated with the Epistola Samuelis (Letter of Samuel) a Latin dialogue between two rabbis about the truth of Christian belief. The text comes to us from the hand of Dominican friar Alfonso Buenhombre (d. c. 1353), who claims in his introduction that he is not the author of the text, but merely the one who translated it from Arabic into Latin after “discovering” it while in prison in North Africa. Although there is evidence that this provenance was invented by Buenhombre, who seems himself to have been the author, the text was later disseminated in hundreds of manuscripts and printed editions and became among the most widely circulated polemical texts of the later Middle Ages. Despite Buenhombre’s importance in medieval polemical literature, relatively little work has been done on his Latin corpus of writing, which is only now being edited for the first time in a critical edition. It is the aim of this essay to consider Buenhombre’s work in detail, paying special attention to his anti-Muslim discourse in his later work, Disputatio Abutalib (The Disputation of Abutalib). As I will show below, consideration of Buenhombre’s Christian sources proves that The Disputation is, like the more popular Epistola Samuelis, not a Latin translation of an Arabic text but a forgery and a fiction, and thus exemplifies the ultimate failure of the thirteenth-century Dominican polemical project.

Authorship and Bibliography

Despite the wide impact of his writing, there is little information about Alfonso Buenhombre himself. To reconstruct his life, we can use a document written by Pope Clement VI, dated in 1344, in which Buenhombre (p.88) is appointed bishop of Marrakech. We can also use the incipit of some of the manuscripts containing his texts in order to reconstruct some details of his biography. His birth, presumably in the late thirteenth century, probably was in Galicia because he always signed his texts as “frater Hispanus” and sometimes calls himself “Gallicus,” which can be interpreted as a variant of “Gallaecius,” or “Galician.”1

The earliest date found in his manuscripts is 1336, which is the year given in Historia Ioseph (History of Joseph), an apocryphal story about Joseph, son of Jacob, that Buenhombre claims is another translation he made from an Arabic original. Buenhombre, in fact, says he finished this translation in that year on the eve of All Saints Day while imprisoned by the sultan in Egypt. Based on the incipit and explicit of some of the manuscripts, we know the general circumstances in which he wrote this text. He was allegedly blamed for spying and was imprisoned with his missionary companion in Cairo, where he obtained some “Arabic books.” He translated them into Latin in order to send them to a “powerful friend” who could help ransom them from prison.

Judging by the incipit of his best-known work, the Epistola Samuelis, Alfonso Buenhombre was in Paris in 1339.2 According to the book’s dedication, Buenhombre had similarly “obtained” this Arabic work in Morocco and subsequently translated it into Latin shortly before the given date. After the translation of this work, Buenhombre wrote the Disputatio Abutalib. There is no date in the explicit of the Disputatio, but we know that this work was written later than the Epistola because of a reference to the former text in the Disputatio’s prologue in which Buenhombre states that he is going to use the same method of translation in the latter as he did in the former. We can assume, therefore, that both translations were completed in a short period of time. The preface to the Disputatio refers to a previous captivity in Marrakech, the circumstances of which are unknown, but this “captivity,” if it really happened, cannot have taken place long before 1339, when the “translation” of the Epistola was completed.3 We can deduce that, around the years 1337–38, after his captivity in Cairo and before his presence in Paris, Alfonso Buenhombre stayed in Marrakech. There, he claims to have obtained the original Arabic books that he later, in Paris, translated into Latin under the titles Epistola Samuelis and Disputatio Abutalib. The writing of the Disputatio had to have taken place, therefore, in 1339 or soon after.

Based on the date of the incipit of Buenhombre’s later Legenda Sancti Antoni (Life of St. Anthony), also proffered as a Latin translation of a supposed (p.89) Arabic original, we can find Buenhombre in Famagusta, Cyprus, in 1341. In the incipit to this hagiographical text, which was allegedly kept by Egyptian monks in a church dedicated to this saint, Buenhombre argues that Christians should be more interested in Arabic texts, because he believes that they can find in them valuable information not found in Latin texts. The following year (1342), he produced a text entitled Tractatus contra malos medicos (Treatise against Bad Doctors), claiming that it too was a translation of a popular medical work. Only one manuscript copy of this text survives.4 In the incipit we read that it is a new translation from Arabic, but there is no information about its origin or the place where Buenhombre translated it.5 The same year, Buenhombre’s protector, Pierre Roger, former archbishop of Rouen, became Pope Clement VI. In 1344 he appointed Buenhombre “bishop of Marrakech,” as we know from the surviving papal bull of his appointment. This document highlights Buenhombre’s knowledge of Arabic as a useful tool for his polemical and missionizing purposes.6 In April 1353, a new bishop of Marrakech was appointed, and we can thus assume that Buenhombre’s death took place shortly before this date.7 There is some evidence of other works by Buenhombre, but these texts have been lost.8 Of Buenhombre’s five surviving works—Historia Ioseph, Epistola Samuelis, Disputatio Abutalib, Legenda sancti Antoni and Tractatus contra malos medicos—two works (the Historia and Tractatus) have never been printed, and two others (the Epistola and Legenda) were edited without taking into consideration all the existing manuscripts.9 I am currently preparing the first critical edition of Buenhombre’s complete Latin works.

Authenticity and Arabic Sources

As we have seen, all five of Buenhombre’s known works are introduced and presented as translations from Arabic rather than original works. This supposed provenance, however, must be carefully examined in each case. The Epistola Samuelis and the Disputatio Abutalib were almost certainly original works composed by Buenhombre, and this is likely the case for his three other works as well. The Epistola has often been attributed to one Samuel Marrochanus, mistakenly thought to be the Jewish convert to Islam Samawʾal al-Maghribī (d. c. 1180), author of Ifḥām al-Yahud (Silencing the Jews), a polemical text against Judaism. Nevertheless, a comparison of this work with that of Buenhombre shows it has nothing to do with the Epistola Samuelis.10 Moreover, the Epistola Samuelis and the (p.90) Disputatio Abutalib, the two theological works of Buenhombre, are themselves closely related. The Epistola takes the form of an attack against Judaism in the form of letters exchanged by two rabbis (Samuel, from Fez, and Isaac, from Sijilmasa), who finally come to believe in the tenets of the Christian faith through discussion of passages from the Hebrew Bible. Similarly, the Disputatio takes the form of a series of letters between a faqīh (Islamic jurist) and a rabbi in Toledo (also named Samuel), whose conclusions are similarly favorable to Christianity. In numerous manuscripts, the end of the text also includes a short chapter dealing with Islam. Based on biblical and Qurʾānic quotations, Samuel and Isaac similarly conclude that Muslims have also received a message that inherently supports belief in Christianity. The absence of this part in the oldest manuscripts of the Epistola, and the fact that the added chapter in fact reproduces part of the Disputatio itself, shows that it must be understood as a later addendum to the original text of the Epistola.11 In short, we can conclude that the only anti-Muslim work of Alfonso Buenhombre is the Disputatio.

According to the incipit of the Disputatio Abutalib, the letters between Abutalib and Samuel were written in Arabic, and were then discovered by Alfonso Buenhombre in Marrakesh circa 1337–38, who translated them into Latin in Paris circa 1340. In the first, second, and third letters, Samuel and Abutalib express their doubts about the historical success of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. In the fourth letter, Samuel argues against Islam with the support of several Qurʾānic quotations, from which he understands that Jesus was the true Messiah. Through the biography, genealogy, and teachings of Muḥammad, he concludes that Muḥammad could not be the prophet of God. In the fifth letter, the longest, Abutalib argues against Judaism on the basis of Old Testament quotations, and he defends Islam, recounting the legend of the Miʿrāj, or night journey, of Muḥammad and defending the superiority of Muḥammad over Jesus and Moses. The sixth letter shows only Samuel’s confusion. Finally, the seventh letter contains the conclusions of Abutalib, where he discloses his knowledge of a “secret book,” a demeaning biography of Muḥammad. According to this secret biography, Muḥammad defended Christianity on his deathbed. On the basis of this source, Abutalib concludes the superiority of Christianity over Islam and Judaism and affirms the superiority of Christian baptism over Muslim ritual ablutions.

It is now absolutely clear that the Disputatio Abutalib is a forgery.12 As Klaus Reinhardt has shown, all anti-Jewish information in the text is (p.91) taken from the writing of Franciscan exegete Nicholas of Lyra (d. 1349), and Buenhombre lies in adducing the sources he allegedly used. I do not intend to analyze here the sources of his anti-Jewish discourse, a question that deserves its own separate study. Nevertheless, the issue bears directly on Buenhombre’s anti-Muslim discourse because Nicholas of Lyra was, among others, one of his primary sources. Through a more detailed consideration of Buenhombre’s sources and arguments, we will be able to trace out the foundations of his falsified anti-Muslim discourse.

Buenhombre’s Anti-Muslim Forgeries

The authority of Buenhombre’s anti-Muslim discourse is based on the putative authenticity of an original Arabic text and the authority of Abutalib, the Muslim faqīh. To manage these elements, Buenhombre uses a simple strategy. The use of some biographical data gives authenticity to the character called Abutalib, and the sources given in the text, which include quotations from the Qurʾān and ḥadīth and references to Muḥammad’s biography, are used to bolster the text’s alleged authenticity. All this information is used in a biased way. The quotations from the Qurʾān and ḥadīth are, as in earlier Christian sources, used to defend the Christian view of Jesus and Mary, and the biography of Muḥammad may serve to substantiate his inferiority in comparison with Jesus.

The translations of the Qurʾān quotations are most interesting. They all come from the third surah. This choice is not accidental, because it is a surah in which the Qurʾān refers to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Although it would be tedious to examine the content of these translations in detail, we can summarize them as describing the Annunciation to Mary and the messianic character of Jesus, according to the interpretation of Buenhombre.13

Some quotations coincide with the Latin versions of these same verses, as given by earlier Christian authors. One of them is the Catalan friar Ramon Martí, who wrote during the thirteenth century and is best known for his lengthy treatise Pugio fidei (Dagger of Faith), which included some Qurʾānic quotations in Arabic written in Hebrew characters and translated into Latin.14 This author seems to have been a source for the Franciscan Nicholas of Lyra, who includes references to the beliefs of Muslims and some Qurʾānic quotations in his Tractatulus, or Responsio contra quendam Iudaeum ex uerbis Euangelii, Christum et eius doctrinam (p.92) impugnantem (A Short Treatise, or Response Taken from the Words of the Gospels against a Certain Jew who Impugns Christ and His Doctrine). Nevertheless, Buenhombre’s versions do not stem directly from Martí or Lyra. A comparison of corresponding Qurʾānic passages shows the close link between Martí and Lyra and the difference between these and Buenhombre:

Buenhombre 4, 315

Martí 3, 3, 7, 14

Lyra 1720

Oh Mary, God has chosen you, and has endowed you with his grace, and has decorated you and has chosen you from among all women, mothers of all sons.16

Oh Mary, God has chosen you and purified you and chosen you as brilliant from among the women of the world.17

Oh Mary, God has chosen you and purified you and chosen you as brilliant from among all the women of the world.18

Although not all the citations given by Buenhombre are in the works of Ramon Martí and Nicholas of Lyra, the most significant are, albeit in different versions. In addition to the quotations referring to Mary, there are also those discussing the messianic nature of Jesus. Buenhombre’s argument contends that Jesus is the Word of God, and that he is the only one who receives this name. This Qurʾānic idea can be found in the writings of Martí and Lyra.19 The relationship between the work of Buenhombre and Nicholas of Lyra is most evident in the criticism against Judaism drawn from Lyra’s Quaestio quodlibetica de adventu Christi (Quodlibetal Question on the Coming of Christ), as Reinhardt has shown.20 Therefore, it is easy to assume that most of Buenhombre’s Qurʾānic quotations also came from Lyra, even though the wording varies.

There is, moreover, another indication of the Latin source of Buenhombre’s Qurʾānic quotations. After having studied twenty-six manuscripts of the Epistola Samuelis containing the brief anti-Muslim addendum, as well as all nine manuscripts of the Disputatio Abutalib, I have found that only one contains any text written in Arabic (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS 15956; see image 1). In this example, we can see a very clumsy copy of the Arabic text, written by a hand not familiar with its alphabet. The copyist, who had left the spaces ready for the Arabic quotations, seems to have consulted an Arabic Qurʾān and tried (p.93) to copy the Arabic text, but he managed to do so only in a chaotic and confusing way. After a first attempt, he gave up this work entirely. The abandonment by the copyist is perfectly understandable, because it seems clear that the text he was copying contained only the Latin translations of the quotations but not the Arabic originals, which seem never to have appeared in any earlier manuscript. The copyist’s failed attempt to insert Arabic text into the Munich codex shows that he had the intention of reconstructing an original source in Arabic.

Even more interesting is the appearance of quotations from ḥadīth collections. Again, some of these citations also appear in the work of Ramon Martí. We read in Buenhombre’s Disputatio: “Muḥammad says in chapter 67 of his second book: Isa, that is, Jesus, in Jerusalem healed the sick, healed the blind, raised the dead.”21 The same Qurʾānic quotation is found in Martí’s writing: “I heal the blind from birth and the leper, and I raise the dead.”22 The ḥadīth text given by Buenhombre is accurate and is in no way misquoted, reflecting the texts as they are found in ḥadīth collections such as those of al-Bukhārī and Muslim. These two collections, however, are known by Ramon Martí and Lyra, who called them Albokari or Albokan and Moçlim or Moselim, as can be seen in these examples:





In the chapter called The Family, it is said that no one has touched Satan except Isa, that is, Jesus, son of Mary.23

The Prophet said, “When every human being is born, Satan touches him on both sides of the body with his two fingers, except Jesus, the son of Mary.”24

Abu Huraira said that he heard Muḥammad saying: None of the sons of Adam is born whom Satan does not touch when born, except Mary and her son.25

Abu Huraira said that he heard the prophet of God saying: None of the sons of Adam is born whom Satan does not touch, except Mary and her son.26

Another possible Christian source of one ḥadīth citation is the chronicle of Alfonso X of Castile, Estoria de España (History of Spain, also known as the Primera Crónica General), as can be seen in these overlapping passages:




Alfonso X

Muḥammad said that when he saw Jesus in Jerusalem, it seemed that water was springing forth out of his head, but there was no water there.27

Narrated ʿAbdullah bin ʿUmar: Allah’s Apostle said “While I was sleeping, I saw … a reddish-white man with lank hair, and water was dripping from his head. I asked, ‘Who is this?’ They replied, ‘The son of Mary.’”28

John, the son of Mary, was blond, and it looked like all his hair was wet and dripping water.29

We can point to numerous other coincidences between the Disputatio and ḥadīth or the text of Alfonso X. A clear example is the reference to the age of Muḥammad when he became a prophet. The ḥadīths state that he was forty years old, a figure accepted by Goodman and slightly emended by Alfonso. The coincidence of the texts affords clear evidence of a dependent relationship.30

Despite the similarities between Buenhombre and Alfonso X, it is also known that the latter relied on Christian sources, in particular the Latin chronicle Historia arabum (History of the Arabs), written by Archbishop Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada (d. 1247).31 The main point of overlap between the Disputatio and the work of Alfonso is the description of the Miʿrāj of Muḥammad. It is easy to confirm by simple comparison that both the chronicle of Alfonso and the Disputatio Abutalib took the information from the chronicle of Jiménez de Rada, whose passage on the Miʿrāj reads, “Gabriel took me to the first heaven, and in this sky the angels greeted me with laughter and joy, and they looked at me and they said ‘very good, very good,’ praying for my success in everything.”32 Alfonso X’s chronicle is very similar, as is Buenhombre’s Disputatio, which reads, “After he finished preaching, immediately, in view of all, the archangel Gabriel took him to the first heaven, that is, to the moon, and all the angels were waiting for him, and they all received him with joy, and they all prayed for his success in everything.”33

The information given by Buenhombre about the life of Muḥammad is, perhaps, even more shocking. The Disputatio shows a brief biography of Muḥammad referring to his childhood and his first revelations. The source of this biographical information is again Jiménez de Rada, who narrates, for example, a scene in which two angels weigh the heart of (p.95) Muḥammad. This source, again, was incorporated into the chronicle of Alfonso X. All these biographical details conclude with a demeaning description of Muḥammad’s death and burial.34 This is the last and final argument against Islam. It is presented as being a book that “some faqīh” kept in secrecy. When mentioning this source, Abutalib is forced to concede reluctantly the obvious arguments against Islam. Of course, this “secret book” in truth never existed, and all this information about Muḥammad’s death is drawn from Spanish historian Lucas de Tuy, who included this text in his Chronicon mundi (Chronicle of the World).


Lucas de Tuy

Being next to him Albimor and his twelve disciples, and the most important disciple was Albimor, Muḥammad said: I will die soon, but my death should not worry you, because on the third day I will rise again, and I will always be with you. Albimor heard this and he doubted about these words in his heart. He was unable to contain himself, and he said to himself: I will check the words of my master. The third day came, and by night he put a strong poison in the glass of Muḥammad. When Muḥammad drank it, he knew he was going to die, but he did not know the cause of his death. He called Albimor and all disciples and leaders, and he said: I am not staying in this body, I will receive an immortal body to live in it forever. … Having finished this, with his wives Aixa and Safiya nearby, he died. Albimor and his disciples looked after his body. After twelve days an unbearable stench appeared, and, when they could no longer bear it, forced by the leaders, he was buried with the great group of leaders in the city of Medina Rusul, a city called by Latin people Town of the Envoy.35

In the tenth year of his reign he said he was going to die and to be raised on the third day, but his disciple Albimor wanted to check if he would rise from his death, and he gave him a strong poison, with which Muḥammad knew he was going to die. … The disciples carefully guarded his body, hoping he would resuscitate. But an unbearable stench appeared and after eleven days, when they could no longer endure it, Albimor found the body chewed by dogs, and he carefully collected the bones in great presence of Saracens, and he buried the bones in the city of Medina Rassul, which in Latin is called Town of the Envoy.36

(p.96) The alleged biographical details of the characters in the Buenhombre’s text are scarce, but those details that are given serve to authenticate the character of Abutalib, who is said to have traveled with Samuel to Jerusalem and Mecca in order to know the true value of Judaism and Islam. To improve their knowledge of both, according to the text, Samuel pretended to be Muslim while in Mecca and Abutalib pretended to be Jewish while in Jerusalem. There are references to this trip to Jerusalem, where Samuel is supposed to be under the protection of Abutalib:

You know, and you know the truth and you have seen it, when you and I were in that temple, and we were very afraid that someone of our people would accuse you of being a Jew, and, following your instructions, I called you my nephew, for enabling you to travel with me from Ceuta to Jerusalem with a Moorish name, and, in that way, you could see, visit and explore the city, the country, and the temple.37

There are likewise some references to the trip to Mecca, and of “the Qurʾān you read me in Mecca, a copy of which, in Arabic, you left me, which I have brought with me and I have hidden.” This trip to the holy places in Arabia included a visit to Medina: “You remember the time when you read the book of Ezra in Yathrib.”38

The biographical references always involve moments when Abutalib or Samuel are reading portions of the Bible or Qurʾān. These references are used not only to give authenticity to both characters, but also to represent them as wise. Among the references is a mention of their conversations in Marrakech: “You told me it when you were reading this book in Marrakech,” or “when you were reading to me the Qurʾān in Marrakech.”39 This is especially interesting, because it includes a reference to a “priest” whom Samuel and Abutalib met at the court of Marrakech. He was proclaiming that Jesus was alive and that he was living far beyond the Caspian Mountains, and that he was coming soon to redeem the Jewish people. Despite these concrete references, however, even these biographical details about Abutalib seem to come from earlier Christian works. The information about the priest of the court of Marrakech, in all probability, comes from a description in Nicholas of Lyra’s treatise Tractatulus. In the Disputatio, Abu Talib says to Samuel:

When you were in Marrakech, and when I was called by King Olmilec, a person of your people went to the king and said: “I am the ambassador of Jesus, son of Mary, in whom Christians believe. He does not accept (p.97) their prayers, because they say that he died, but he lives beyond the Caspian Mountains, and soon he will come to judge the Jewish people, so prepare your home to receive him.”40

This statement bears a striking resemblance to a similar one in Lyra’s Tractatulus, relating that “Others say that he lives beyond the Caspian Mountains expecting God’s command to go to free his people.”41

By tracing the text’s details to Latin polemical sources, it becomes clear that Buenhombre did not translate an existing anti-Muslim treatise from Arabic, but rather made use of existing Latin texts while claiming they were examples of original Arabic material. The analysis of Buenhombre’s sources can also give us a better idea about the purpose of his discourse. The work of Nicholas of Lyra is contemporaneous with that of Buenhombre, and the proximity of both authors suggests that, perhaps, Buenhombre made use of Lyra with the latter’s explicit permission. Apart from Lyra, all of Buenhombre’s sources are Iberian. These Hispanic sources, moreover, typify two branches of Christian writing in thirteenth century Iberia: the historiographical, with Jiménez de Rada, Lucas de Tuy, and Alfonso; and the theological, with Ramon Martí. We can say that in the Disputatio Abutalib the desire for conquest and dream of conversion that had prevailed in the thirteenth century converge.

We must not forget that in the thirteenth century there were no fewer than four crusades, and that during this time the Mongols defeated the Abbasid Caliphate. The century saw the great expansion of the Spanish Christian kingdoms, which conquered most of the Islamic territory of Spain. It was also in the thirteenth century when Franciscans and Dominicans applied with force their policy of conversion of Jews and Muslims, attempting to enact what John Tolan has rightly called “the dream of conversion.”42 The Franciscan policy of direct confrontation with Muslims had led to an influx into Islamic lands of missionaries who wanted to show their faith, who denigrated Islam and Muḥammad publicly, and who suffered martyrdom as a proof of the superiority of their religion. Francis himself tried to apply this policy, as did his followers. In 1220, for example, five Franciscans suffered martyrdom in Marrakech; in 1227, six in Ceuta; in 1228, two in Valencia; in 1232, five more in Marrakech. One could add many more examples to this list.43

The Franciscan strategy was criticized by authors like Thomas of Chobam.44 In contrast, the Dominicans postulated a different tactic and applied a policy of theological dispute, especially in the lands of the (p.98) Crown of Aragon. This technique was made possible through the support and understanding of James I, who worked with Dominican friars, such as Ramon de Penyafort and Ramon Martí. The Aragonese conquest was always accompanied by a religious mission, and the crown itself promoted the creation of centers that served to facilitate conversion “from within.”45 For that reason, numerous Dominicans studied Arabic and Hebrew, as is shown in the Pugio fidei of Martí. Martí’s title Pugio fidei, the “Dagger of Faith,” evinces the Dominican intention of finding a theological weapon that could be used in religious disputes against Muslims and Jews. The Dominican strategy in approaching these disputes was clear: They had to know Jewish and Islamic texts in order to refute them and to facilitate the conversion of Jews and Muslims.

Nevertheless, such efforts met with little success. In 1295, the Mongol khan had converted to Islam, and, as a consequence, the Christian hopes of defeating Islam in a military pact between Christians and Mongols was definitely finished. Military conflicts continued, of course, but without the aim of conquering all the Islamic lands. Similarly, the religious disputes continued, but without the clear goal of winning massive conversions. In that sense, the fourteenth century opens on a note of pessimism. The Franciscan and Dominican friars (with the possible exception of Ramon Llull, who deserves a separate study) no longer saw the possibility of full success. In this respect, there is a substantial difference between the thirteenth and fourteenth century over religious controversies.

We must ask, therefore, how is it possible that as late as 1339 there appears a polemic like that of Buenhombre? What was the sense of this work? The Disputatio Abutalib fits the pattern of earlier Dominican works: It is an attack on Islam and Judaism from their own texts, as Martí had done. Buenhombre’s own life likewise coincides with the exemplary life of a Dominican friar: He was a theologian, a traveler, a bishop, and a translator of Arabic. The peculiarity of the Disputatio Abutalib lies in its theological success in representing the Christian victory over a rabbi and a faqīh, who both finally convert to Christianity. The success is such that Christianity does not need to come to this dispute between Judaism and Islam, because the argument is based on the analysis of Jewish and Islamic texts, but without the presence of any Christian texts.46 This success, however, is sustained over a void, elaborated over nothing but the inventions of fiction. The discussions between Abutalib and Samuel, and especially their Christian conclusions, never existed outside the imagination of Alfonso Buenhombre. Even the purported Arabic sources used for the dispute (p.99)

The Anti-Muslim Discourse of Alfonso Buenhombre

(Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek MS 15956).

are not real, because as we have seen, Buenhombre used Latin sources, many of them derogatory and polemical.

The Dominican strategy of converting Muslims was, in short, a failure, and in this sense, we can interpret the polemical discourse of Alfonso Buenhombre as a fanciful happy ending imagined for the (p.100) anti-Muslim strategy that Ramon de Penyfort and Ramon Martí had inaugurated in the previous century. Buenhombre’s strategy attests to the loss of confidence in the tactic of studying theological texts as a weapon against Muslims, betraying a loss of confidence in the original strategy of the Dominicans. Despite his optimism, Buenhombre and his text represent not a final success in the history of polemics but the beginning of their inevitable failure.


(1.) In his own words: “quia ego Gallicus sum.” It appears in the preface of his Legenda sancti Antoni. We can associate Gallicus with Gallaecius, because in the same chapter Gallicia is assimilated to Gallaecia when he states the limit of the world: “usque ad Sanctum Iacobum de Gallicia.”

(2.) This text has been copied, edited, and translated so many times that it can be considered a medieval bestseller. See Ora Limor, “The Epistle of Rabbi Samuel of Morocco: A Best-Seller in the World of Polemics,” in Contra Iudaeos. Ancient and Medieval Polemics between Christians and Jews, ed. Ora Limor and Guy G. Stroumsa (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1996), 177–94.

(3.) In this sense we must understand his sentence “libellum qui nuper ad manus meas deuenit.”

(4.) Milan: Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Codex Ambrosianus, MS I 128 Inf. fols. 146r–151v.

(5.) This work has, to date, never been printed or translated into a modern language. In 1500 Johannes Elisius edited a Libellus Arabicus in malos medicos, and a translation into Latin, made by Elisius, of an alleged Arabic medical text that an ancient Arab doctor, called Bonihominis, had written some years before. It is, of course, a fraud. Elisius tried to justify his recreation of the original text by pretending that he had translated it from the Arabic.

(6.) The bull reads, “persona … in sacra pagina erudita, et experta in praedicatione verbi Dei, linguam populi illarum partium intelligat, habeatque peritiam loquendi eamdem.” Vicente Beltrán de Heredia O. P., Bulario de la Universidad de Salamanca. 1219–1549 (Salamanca: U. de Salamanca, 1969), 354–5

(7.) Conrad Eubel, Hierarchia Catholica Medii Aevi sive Summorum Pontificum S. R. E. Cardinalium Ecclesiarum Antistitum Series, ab anno 1198 usque ad annum 1431 perducta (Padua: Monasterii, 1913), 326–27.

(8.) According to the prologue of the Legenda, Buenhombre also translated biographies of Onufrius and Macarius, but nothing more is known of the existence of these texts.

(9.) The Legenda Sancti Antoni was edited in 1942 in an excellent edition by François Halkin, but not with all the manuscripts we know of today. See François Halkin, “La légende de Saint Antoine traduite de l’arabe par Alphonse Bonhome O.P.,” Analecta Bollandiana 60 (1942): 143–212. We have since been fortunate to find a new manuscript unknown to Halkin: Paderborn, Erzbischöfliche Akademische Bibliothek, Ms. Hux. 11a, which can be dated to the fifteenth century. The Disputatio Abutalib was edited by Santiago García-Jalón de la Lama and Klaus Reinhardt, La disputa de Abutalib (Madrid: Aben Ezra Ediciones, 2006). The Epistola Samuelis has been edited and translated many times, but still lacks a critical edition.

(10.) Samawʾal al-Maghribī, Ifḥam al-Yahūd. Silencing the Jews, ed. and trans. Moshe Perlmann (New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1964).

(11.) For a detailed study of this question, see Antoni Biosca i Bas, “Las traducciones coránicas de Alfonso Buenhombre,” The Journal of Medieval Latin 18 (2008): 257–77.

(12.) Klaus Reinhardt, “Un musulmán y un judío prueban la verdad de la fe cristiana: la disputa entre Abutalib de Ceuta y Samuel de Toledo,” in Diálogo filosófico-religioso entre cristianismo, judaísmo e islamismo durante la Edad Media en la Península Ibérica. Actes du Colloque international de San Lorenzo de El Escorial 23–26 juin 1991, ed. Horacio Santiago-Otero (Turnhout: Brepols, 1994), 191–212. (p.235)

(13.) For a study of Qurʾānic quotations of Buenhombre, see Antoni Biosca i Bas, “Las traducciones.” An excellent work on readers of the Qurʾān in medieval Latin is Thomas Burman, Reading the Qurʾān in Latin Christendom, 1140–1560 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

(14.) For these Qurʾānic quotations in the Pugio fidei, see Ryan Szpiech, “Citas árabes en caracteres hebreos en el Pugio Fidei del dominico Ramón Martí: entre la autenticidad y la autoridad,” Al-Qanṭara 32, no. 1 (2011): 71–107.

(15.) For the text of Martí, we have followed the edition of Leipzig 1687. The text of Lyra’s Tractatulus contra quendam Iudaeum appears after his Postillae in the sixth volume of the Douai / Antwerp 1617 edition. See Biblia Sacra cum glossa ordinaria, 6 vols. (Douai [vol. 1]: B. Bellerus; Antwerp [vols. 2–6]: J. van Keerbergen, 1617). We give the page number from this edition.

(16.) “O Maria, Deus elegit te, et decorauit te gratia, et ornauit et preelegit super omnes mulieres omnium filiorum matres.” We follow the numbering of chapter and paragraph (followed by page number) of the edition of Reinhardt and García-Jalón de al Lama: Alfonso Buenhombre, La disputa de Abutalib (Madrid: Aben Ezra Ediciones, 2006), 4.3:65.

(17.) “O Maria utique Deus elegit et purificauit te et elegit te claram super mulieres seculorum.” For the text of Martí, we have followed the edition of Leipzig 1687, Pugio fidei, 3, 3, 7, 14; Szpiech, “Citas árabes,” 95 and 98.

(18.) “O Maria, Deus utique elegit te, purificauit te, elegit te claram super mulieres seculorum.” See Szpiech, “Citas árabes,” 85n36.

(21.) “Dicit Machometus libro secundo zahara sexagesima septima: Eyc, id est, Ihesus, in Iherusalem curauit infirmos, illuminauit cecos, resuscitauit mortuos?” Buenhombre, La disputa, 5.10:89.

(22.) “Et curo cecum natum et leprosum et resuscito mortuos,” Martí, Pugio fidei,; Szpiech, “Citas árabes,” 95 and 98.

(23.) “Etiam zahara De Familia dicitur quod nullus est qui [sic, lege quem non] tetigerit Sathan preter Eyc, id est, Ihesum, et Mariam.” Buenhombre, La disputa, 4.4:65.

(24.) Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Ismāʾīl al-Bukhārī, al-Ṣaḥīḥ (Beirut: Dār Ibn Ḥazm, 2009), book 59, bāb 11, #3286. The same idea can be found in Muslim ibn al-Ḥajāj al-Qushayrī, al-Ṣaḥīḥ (Beirut: Dār Ibn Ḥazm 2010), book 43, bāb 40, #2366c.

(25.) “Dixit Ebi Horaira … quod audiuit … Machometum, dicentem: nullus nascitur de filiis Adam quem non tangat Satan quando nascitur … preter Mariam et filium eius.” Martí, Pugio fidei,; Szpiech, “Citas árabes,” 95 and 99.

(26.) “Dixit Emboria quod audiuit nuntium Dei dicentem: Nullus de filiis Adam nascitur quem non tangat Sathan … praeter Mariam et filium eius.” Biblia sacra, 6:1720.

(27.) “Machometus dixit, cum uidisset Ihesum in Iherusalem, quod uidebantur aque prosilire de capite eius, et tamen aqua non erat ibi.” Buenhombre, La disputa, 7.3:139.

(28.) Al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, book 92, bāb 26, #7128. The same idea can be found in Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, book 1, bāb 75, #169a and #171.

(29.) “Johan, fijo de Maria, auie los cabellos amariellos … e semeiauan los cabellos del que todos eran moiados e que corrien agua.” Ms. Escorial Y.I.2, fol. 169r. I follow the (p.236) reading of “Ms. Escorial Y.I.2,” as it appears in the database CORDE of the Real Academia Española http://www.rae.es, edited by P. Sánchez-Prieto Borja, Rocío Díaz Moreno, and Elena Trujillo Belso. For the theological use of this quotation, see Antoni Biosca i Bas, “Sine aqua saluari non ualemus. El agua como purificación de creyentes y de infieles,” in Ritus infidelium. Miradas interconfesionales sobre las prácticas religiosas en la Edad Media (Madrid: Casa de Velázquez, 2013), 29–44.

(30.) For example, al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, book 61, bāb 23, #3547 (and Muslim’s Ṣaḥīḥ, book 43, bāb 31, #2347a): “Narrated Rabīʿa bin Abī ʿAbd al-Raḥmān: I heard Anas bin Mālik describing the Prophet saying, ‘… Divine Inspiration was revealed to him when he was forty years old. He stayed ten years in Mecca receiving the Divine Inspiration, and stayed in Medina for ten more years. …’ Narrated Anas: ‘Allah sent him (as an Apostle) when he was forty years old. Afterwards he resided in Mecca for ten years and in Medina for ten more years.’” This appears in the Disputatio 4, 8–9: “Ipse Machometus dixit in libro secundo suo, qui uocatur Atabalib, quod archangelus Gabriel reuelauerat sibi postquam fuerat adultus, cum autem esset quadraginta annorum, reuersus in Mecham, ubi latuit per tres annos, in quibus composuit Alchoranum.” Alfonso’s text is very similar: “Mahomat auiendo ya quareynta e ocho annos de su edad e nueue que fuera alçado Rey; trabaiauasse mucho de ueuir e de estar siempre lo mas del tiempo en Meca. E alli estando predicaua e dizie mintiendo todas estas cosas que auemos dichas, e aun otras muchas que son de riso e de escarnio e de falsedad. E fazie a todos creer que Grabiel ge las dixiera” (fol. 170r).

(31.) Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, Historia Arabum, ed. José Lozano (Sevilla: U. de Sevilla, 1993).

(32.) “Ad primum celum Gabriel me perduxit, et me in isto celo benigne angeli receperunt et cum risu et gaudio respexerunt dicentes ‘bene, bene,’ orantes michi prospera et iocunda.” Historia Arabum, 5.

(33.) “Et predicatione completa, statim uidentibus omnibus Gabriel archangelus duxit ipsum in primum celum, scilicet, orbem Lune, et omnes angeli erant ibi expectando ipsum, et omnes ipsum bene receperunt cum risu, orantes omnes quod cuncta sibi prospere euenissent.” Buenhombre, La disputa, 5.3:79. Cf. Alfonso X, Estoria de España, El Escorial MS Y.I.2, fol. 169r: “After this the angel Gabriel took me, and led me to the first heaven, and the angels who were there came to me and welcomed me, and they were very happy with me, and with great plea sure over this, they looked at each other and said ‘Oh, how very good is this one, oh how good,’ and they all prayed for my good and for my health.” [“Despues desto tomo me ell angel Grabiel, e leuo me suso fastal primero cielo, e los angeles que y estauan uinieron contra mi e recebieron me muy bien, e fueron muy alegres comigo. E con el grand plazer que ende ouieron; catauan se unos a otros e dizien ‘Ay que bien este, ay que bien,’ e orauan me todos, todo bien e toda salud.”]

(34.) “Nam enim prima excellentia est quia dicitis quod, cum esset quatuor annorum, uenerunt duo angeli et aperuerunt cor parui Machometi, et extraxerunt inde coagulum sanguinis denigrati, quod postea niuis lauacro abluerunt, et ponderauerunt cor eius cum decem cordibus gentis sue, et postea cum mille, et maius pondere inuentum est. Et unus angelus dixit alteri: ‘si cum omnibus Arabibus in trucina poneretur, omnibus preualeret.’” Buenhombre, La disputa, 4.8:73. See also Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, Historia Arabum, 1; and Alfonso X, Estoria de España, El Escorial MS Y.I.2, fol. 163r.

(35.) “Astantibus Albimor et discipulis eius duodecim, inter quos Albimor erat princeps, dixit: ‘me cito oportet mori, sed non uos perturbet mors mea, quia die tertia resurgam, (p.237) et sic in perpetuum uobiscum consistam.’ Quod audiens Albimor et dubitans de uerbo in corde suo, non ualens pre desiderio ultra se continere, inquit apud semet ipsum: ‘experiri intendo magistri mei uerbum.’ Tertia die addito, callide in nocte obtulit Machometo in uase lactis efficacissimum uenenum. Quo hausto, sensit se moriturum, nesciens tamen causam sue mortis. Et uocatis ad se Albimor et discipulis eius ac cunctis principibus suis ait: ‘non passus sum ultra in isto corpore infirmo detineri, uado ad recipiendum inmortale corpus, ut in illo uberrime uiuam in eternum … Hoc finito, circa uxores Axam et Xapham emisit spiritum. Albimor autem cum discipulis suis custodiuit corpus eius. Et post duodecim dies, nimio fetore erumpente, cum iam sustinere non possent eis abscondentibus, deprehensi a principibus coacte habuerunt cum maxima turba principum sepelire eum in Medina Rusul, quam Latini uocant Ciuitas Nuntii.” Buenhombre, La disputa, 7.2:135–37.

(36.) “Decimo autem regni sui anno, quia dixerat se moriturum et tercia die resurrecturum, Albimor discipulus eius uolens experiri utrum uere a morte resurgeret, callide Machometo efficacissimum uenenum obtulit, quo statim repentina mutatione Machumet mortis sue terminum sensit. (…) Discipuli uero eius diligenter custodiebant corpus ipsius, expectantes quod resurgeret. Sed nimio erumpente fetore, cum iam sustinere non possent, eis abscendentibus Albimor post undecimam diem reperit corpus eius a canibus dilaniatum, et diligenter colligens ossa illius cum magno Sarracenorum conuentu sepeleuit eum in Medina Rassul, que Latine Ciuitas Nuncii dicitur.” Lucas de Tuy, Chronicon Mundi, ed. Emma Falque (Turnhout: Brepols, 2003), 3, 6. We can also compare this with Alfonso X, Estoria de España, fol. 171r.

(37.) “Scis, et uere scis et uidisti, cum ego et tu essemus in dicto templo cum maximo ti-more ne aliquis de societate nostra nos acusaret qualiter tu eras Hebreus, et ego simulate te uocabam consobrinum meum per te rogatus, ut de Cepta Iherosolimam ascenderes mecum ficte sub nomine Mauri taliter ut secrete posses totam Ciuitatem et patriam et Templum perscrutari, perquirere et uidere.” Buenhombre, La disputa, 3.5:59.

(38.) “Per Alchoranum, quem michi legisti apud Mecham, cuius transumptum in Arabico concessisti, quem asportaui, et apud me reconditum habeo.” Buenhombre, La disputa, 4.1:61. “te recordare temporis in quo legisti Esdram in Hiatrib.” 4.1:109.

(39.) “Tu dixisti michi, legendo apud Marrochium librum istum.” Buenhombre, La disputa, 3.2:55. “Quando michi legebas Alchoranum apud Marrochium.” Buenhombre, La disputa, 3.2:73.

(40.) “Cum tu esses in Marrochio, et ego essem uocatus per regem Olmilec, quidam de gente uestra uenit ad regem et dixit sibi: ‘ego sum preco Ihesu, filii Marie, quem colunt Christiani, et ipse non acceptat eorum orationes quia asserunt ipsum mortuum fuisse, quia ipse uiuit ultra montes Caspios et cito ueniet ad liberandum populum Iudeorum, ideo prepara domum tuam ad recipiendum ipsum.’” Buenhombre, La disputa, 5.25:107.

(41.) “Alii dicunt quod est ultra montes Caspios expectans preceptum Domini de liberatione populi” Biblia sacra, 6:1708.

(42.) John Tolan, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval Eu ro pean Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 171.

(43.) Cándida Ferrero, “Inter Saracenos. Mártires franciscanos en el norte de África y en la Península Ibérica (ss. XIII–XVII),” Frate Francesco 77, no. 2 (2011): 261–77. (p.238)

(44.) Tolan, Saracens, 233–42. The same idea can be found in the Epistola ad Abdalla of Pere Marsili, in Antoni Biosca i Bas, “La carta contra el converso mallorquín Abdalá: una obra inédita de Pere Marsili,” Frate Francesco 78, no. 2 (2012): 387–401. The complete critical edition of this text will appear in my Opera Omnia Petri Marsili, in the collection Corpus Christianorum.

(45.) André Berthier, “Les Écoles de langues orientales fondées au XIIIe siècle par les Dominicains en Espagne et en Afrique,” Revue Africaine 73 (1932): 90–103; Robin Vose, Dominicans, Muslims and Jews in the Medieval Crown of Aragon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

(46.) The Disputatio has been termed by John Tolan “the epitome of the failure of the Dominican ambition to convert the Jewish and Muslims worlds to Christianity through disputation,” Saracens, 255. Fernando González Muñoz describes the Disputatio as “un divertimento o ejercicio escolar más que una propuesta seria de renovación de la estrategia predicatoria dominicana.” See his review of Reinhardt and García-Jalón de la Lama, La disputa de Abutalib, Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 5 (2008), 490.